An Englishman named Henry Every, alias John Avery, alias “Long Ben” Avery, called in his time “the Arch-Pirate.”
In May 1694, when King William’s War against Louis XIV was in its fifth indecisive year, the English privateer Charles II lay at anchor in the port of La Coruña, in Spain.
A swift-sailing, well-armed fighting ship, the Charles II carried forty-six cannon and a crew of 120 tough veterans of privateering campaigns in the Caribbean. She had been chartered in Bristol by the Spanish government, England’s new ally against the French. Her mission was to intercept French smugglers operating in Spain’s Caribbean colonies.
It was not much of a charter, for there was little chance that French smugglers, even if they could be caught, would yield much plunder. Prize money, therefore, would be meager. On the other hand, privateering ventures had become scarcer than sober sailors since the war with France had commenced. For that reason any seafarer who wanted to avoid service in the navy or aboard a merchant ship was glad to take whatever privateering berth presented itself, even if it was only a punitive expedition against smugglers. Recruiters, therefore, had had no trouble signing men aboard the Charles II.
The Charles II, however, was not a happy ship.
Although her crewmen—as employees of the Spanish government—had been promised regular pay (in addition to shares in any booty they might capture from French smugglers), they had received no salary since signing aboard and they were grumbling openly.
But despite the complaints of the crew, the commander of the Charles II, a certain Captain Gibson, did nothing to improve the situation. According to that omniscient chronicler Daniel Defoe, Captain Gibson was a man “mightily addicted to Punch,” and usually drank himself into a stupor each night. It is likely that Gibson was too drunk or hung over most of the time to know, or care, about the plummeting morale of his crew.
Further aggravating the unhappiness aboard the Charles II was the fact that neither Captain Gibson nor the Spanish government seemed in any hurry to speed her on her mission to the Caribbean where her disaffected crew would at least get a chance to obtain some plunder. Although it was months since Spanish officials had chartered her, the Charles II had still gotten no farther than the port of La Coruña where, as the month of May waned, she was delayed again, waiting this time to take on additional passengers and stores for the long voyage across the Atlantic, while her crew seethed with resentment.
If Captain Gibson was unaware of—or unconcerned with—the tension aboard his ship, there was one officer of the Charles II who was very much aware of it. This was the ship’s forty-year-old sailing master, or first officer, Henry Every, who was soon to become the most celebrated pirate of his time.
According to contemporaries, Every was a man of middle height, stocky, with a tendency to run to fat. Clean-shaven, as the fashion was, he had a florid complexion—one that would redden, rather than tan, in the sun—and cold eyes that looked out upon the world with unswerving directness from under heavy lids. In dress he was far from a dandy, usually favoring a rather plain costume by the standards of the time: a tricorn hat, breeches and buckled shoes, and a plain, longish waistcoat that did not flatter his somewhat corpulent figure.
Every more than compensated for his physical shortcomings, however, with an intimidating personality, a cunning intelligence, and a frigid and ruthless competence that caused other men to defer to him. Although Every’s associates acknowledged his courage and his daring in action, all recognized that it was his capacity to contrive clever plans and then to execute them with cold, undeviating purposefulness, that truly set Every apart from the simple men who sailed with him.
The incidents of Every’s career reveal him as one of that rarest of human creatures: a completely selfish man. He seems to have known at all times exactly what he wanted, and exactly what to do to obtain what he wanted. Nor did he scruple at any wrongdoing to achieve his ends. He was a man who always maintained control of himself. He did not drink, for example, although he operated in an environment in which drunkenness was a way of life. He seldom betrayed anger either, although he would occasionally feign it for effect. Self-disciplined himself, Every overflowed with contempt for the weak-minded and ignorant men around him. Yet he managed to hide his disdain behind a mask of good nature in order to get these simpler souls to do his will.
(At least one contemporary source says that Every was often “insolent” and that he gave himself the airs of a monarch. As if to underscore this judgment, he is depicted in some old woodcuts wearing fancy clothing and accompanied by a black slave who holds a parasol over his head to shield him from the sun. Given the character of Every that comes through in his career, however, it seems highly unlikely that he ever really adopted such royal airs. It is far more probable that, if he ever did behave in this manner, it was a pose he employed to achieve some devious purpose of his own. Other contemporary illustrations show a rather portly, heavy-lidded Every with a cynical half smile on his face. These portraits seem much more characteristic of the man. It is easy to imagine the smile of this Every turning into a snarl. It is also easy to imagine the man depicted in these illustrations speaking soothing, convincing words in a soft, velvety voice—and then cocking his pistols and coolly blowing his hearer’s brains out.)
While it is necessary to infer much of Every’s character from contemporary accounts and from events in his career, a few solid facts do exist about his early life.
He was born near Plymouth, England, about 1653, the son of poverty-stricken parents. He went to sea as a boy some time around 1665 and is supposed to have served in the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Bright and willing, he learned to read and write, a rare accomplishment among ordinary sailors of the time. He also had a predilection for mathematics, and became a first-class navigator. While still a young man—despite the pervasive prejudices of the day—he became a ship’s officer, serving aboard a series of merchant vessels. At one point he served aboard a slave ship that worked the west coast of Africa in the service of the royal governor of Bermuda. He apparently employed his native ruthlessness and persuasiveness to good effect in filling the holds of his ships with human cargo, for he soon gained a reputation along the coast as a most successful practitioner of the gruesome trade in “black ivory.” He must have remained in the slave trade for a number of years, because as late as 1693, a Royal African Company officer wrote: “I have no where upon the coast met the negroes so shy as here, which makes me fancy they have had tricks play’d them by such blades as Long Ben, alias Every, who have seiz’d and carry’d them away.”
Probably it was while employed in the vile slave trade that Henry Every gained both his knowledge of command and the deep streak of contempt for humanity that was so evident in his piratical career.
In any event, Every had long since made himself into a master mariner and a practiced manipulator of men when, in May 1694, he found himself serving aboard the privateer Charles II.
Although nominally second-in-command under the drunken Captain Gibson, there is little doubt that Every was, in fact, the real leader of the discontented crew of the Charles II. He had helped recruit many of the ship’s crew off the docks of Bristol. Many of them, no doubt, had sailed with him on slaving voyages in the past. They would have had no hesitancy about disclosing to Henry Every their dissatisfaction about the Charles II’s cruise—and he would have had no scruple about manipulating the crew’s ire for his purposes.
The men aboard the Charles II must have already heard the first reports of the voyage of Captain Thomas Tew in the Amity, and the rich score that he had made. There must have been many nights, as the Charles II lay at La Coruña and Captain Gibson lay drunk in his cabin, when Henry Every whispered to his shipmates that they too might become rich. They had only to seize the Charles II and take her to the East.
Doubtless Every, using such blandishments, had little trouble recruiting a full complement of mutineers.
(It is not beyond the realm of possibility, as some suggest, that Every had planned to seize the Charles II from the very outset of her cruise. Given his devious nature, he might very well have recruited some of his old Bristol shipmates from slaving days specifically for purposes of mutiny.)
Having made sure of sufficient support among the crew, Every set forth a simple straightforward plan for taking the Charles II.
Every’s plan revolved around the fact that it was captain Gibson’s habit to go ashore almost every night and get blind drunk in a favorite tavern. He suggested that the mutineers simply wait for a night when the tide would be running out to sea and the moon obscured. While Captain Gibson was ashore getting drunk, they would take control of the ship and set adrift any dissenters to their enterprise. Then, after riding the tide far enough offshore, they would set sail and be away to gain their fortune. All agreed with Every’s scheme.
But on the designated night, Captain Gibson did not go ashore. Instead he got drunk in his cabin.
The cool Every merely altered his plan.
He waited until the captain had drunk himself into his usual stupor. Then Every and his mutineers weighed anchor—so stealthily that they neither woke the drunken captain nor disturbed other members of the crew asleep below.
They headed the Charles II out to sea on the tide. Defoe tells the story from this point on in crisp detail.
The Charles II was far offshore when at last the motion of the ship and the sound of the sails being worked finally roused Captain Gibson.
The befuddled captain rang the bell in his cabin, signaling for his second-in-command. Every, who had been expecting the summons, entered the captain’s cabin accompanied by two of his mutineers. (It is easy to imagine the portly Every, with a cocked pistol in his belt, smiling down on the confused, disheveled Gibson sprawled out in his nightshirt on his bunk.)
“What is the matter?” asked Captain Gibson, sitting up and pointing to the lamp in his cabin, swinging with the movement of the ship. “What is the matter?”
“Nothing is the matter,” Every replied smoothly.
“Something’s the matter with this ship,” insisted Gibson, emerging now a little further out of his alcoholic fog. “What weather is it?”
“No, no,” soothed Every. “We’re at sea with a fair wind and good weather.”
“At sea!” the captain cried. “How can that be?”
“Come,” Every murmured, the smile remaining on his face. “Don’t be in a fright. Put on your clothes, and I’ll let you into a secret.”
Now, as the astounded Captain Gibson listened wide-eyed and struggled into his clothes, Every matter-of-factly spelled out the new status of the Charles II and those who sailed in her.
Said Every: “You must know that I am captain of this ship now, and this is my cabin; therefore you must walk out. I am bound to Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”
Every, maintaining his tone of sweet reason, then went on to explain that Captain Gibson had only two choices open to him. He could join the mutiny as Every’s second-in-command (provided he was willing to give up drinking), or Every would give him a ship’s boat and let him find his way to shore.
Captain Gibson recognized that he no longer commanded his ship. He chose to be set ashore. Every agreed. The mutiny was over.
Now, with his purpose accomplished, Every and his mutineers called together the rest of the crew. Every explained what had happened, and the mission he now proposed for the Charles II. The great majority of the crew overwhelmingly approved Every’s enterprise and enthusiastically elected him captain.
Six crewmen who did not endorse Every or his program were then put into an open boat along with the deposed Captain Gibson and allowed to row back to La Coruña. (By the time they reached the safety of the port, and told their story, Every was far out of reach.)
Every now renamed the ship the Fancy—a name soon to become famous. He then ran up the flag of St. George—a banner flown by many English ships—and his own personal flag: four silver chevrons on a red field, a flag soon to become infamous. He then set a course that would take Fancy around the Cape of Good Hope to the East, where Tew had won his fortune.
It was not long before Fancy took her first victims. In the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, Every halted three English ships and helped himself to supplies from their larders. Although minor in scope, this offense against English ships was, in fact, an unpardonable act of piracy, one that put Every and his men irrevocably outside the law. Perhaps the devious Every deliberately chose to plunder these English ships in order to commit his men to him and to their mission. In any event, Fancy continued on her voyage southward along the African coast. Along the way she took two Danish ships, which yielded only a few ounces of gold for each man in Every’s crew. But it was a taste of what was to come.
After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Every fetched up at Johanna Island, a pleasant, well-watered island just off the northwest corner of Madagascar. Johanna was a popular place for mariners to victual, water, and clean their hulls. Here Every careened the Fancy and scraped her hull of marine growth so that she would slide more smoothly through the water. He also took this opportunity to remove much of Fancy’s “upperwork” such as her deck cabins, forecastle bulwarks, and hatches. The idea was to achieve a “flush” deck that would give her more speed—a crucial requirement, Every felt, for success in the mission ahead.
While at Johanna an incident occurred that further illustrates Every’s capacity to make swift, unsentimental judgments for the benefit of himself and his enterprise.
A French pirate ship, loaded with loot taken from Mogul ships, came into Johanna for water.
Every quickly assembled his men and pointed out that England and France were at war. He then suggested that it was their duty to their king to seize the French pirate. To the ordinary sailors who heard Every, the proposition seemed plausible, not to mention attractive. Without hesitation Every’s men piled aboard the French pirate, and soon took control of the ship and her contents.
Every then invited the defeated French crew to join the crew of Fancy. Most of them, along with a dozen other Frenchmen, who had previously been shipwrecked at Johanna, did so with alacrity, obviously impressed with Every. They no doubt saw clearly that service with a captain who knew what he wanted and how to get it would bring considerable profit.
While at Johanna, Every also composed a cunning letter that he gave to a native chief to pass on to the first English ship that arrived in the harbor after he had departed. It is classical Every:
To All English Commanders:
Let this satisfy that I was riding here at this instant in the ship Fancy, man-of-war, formerly the Charles of the Spanish Expedition who departed from La Coruña 7th May 1694, being then and now a ship of 46 guns, 150 men and bound to seek our fortunes. I have never as yet wronged any English or Dutch or ever intend whilst I am Commander. Wherefore as I commonly speak with all ships, I desire whoever comes to the perusal of this to take this signal, that if you or any whom you may inform are desirous to know what we are at a distance, then make your ancient [ship’s flag] up in a ball or bundle and hoist him at the mizzen peak, the mizzen being furled. I shall answer with the same, and never molest you, for my men are hungry, stout, and resolute, and should they exceed my desire I cannot help myself. As yet, an Englishman’s friend, At Johanna 18th February 1695
P.S. Here is 160 odd French armed men at Mohilla who waits for opportunity for getting any ship, take care of yourselves.
This mixture of threats and assurances was received by the English captain of an East Indiaman only a few days after Every sailed north from Johanna. It was eventually forwarded to London with a request for stronger measures against the growing pirate menace in the Indian Ocean.
Every’s purpose in writing this cleverly contrived letter was to confuse the authorities regarding his purpose. He had hoped, also, to give the impression that if his men committed crimes, it was beyond his power to stop them, and he should not be held accountable. Always thinking of himself above all, Every appears to be trying to disassociate himself personally, in advance, from the crimes that he knew he and his men would soon be committing. By adding the postscript about the French threat at Mohilla (Mohéli), he was probably attempting to convince the ultimate readers of the letter, the authorities in London, that despite all appearances to the contrary, he remained a loyal Englishman in service to the king.
But Every’s ploy, which he had probably regarded as a long shot in any case, failed to achieve its purpose. The authorities in London set Henry Every down in their books as an outright pirate.