On September 7, 1695, Englishman Henry Every led a pirate fleet against the Ganj-i-Sawai, a massive treasure ship owned by the Grand Mughal of India. Along with winning the buccaneers a kingly haul—their loot included some 500,000 gold and silver pieces—the raid also triggered a political crisis in England and made Every the target of an international manhunt. Three hundred twenty years later, take a look back at one of history’s biggest and most influential acts of piracy.
Henry Every may not be as famous as later pirates like Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts, but his brief career may have inspired many of them to first take up the cutlass and set sail under the Jolly Roger. During just two years prowling the seas, Every and his band captured roughly a dozen vessels and made off with tens of millions of dollars in booty. His exploits inspired songs, books and plays, including one called “The Successful Pyrate” that was performed on London stages for several years. Most astonishing of all—and unlike Blackbeard and many others—he did it all without getting captured or killed.
Little is known about Every’s early life. He went to sea at a young age, and may have served in the Royal Navy before working as a slave trader in the early 1690s. In 1693, he reappears in the historical record as the first mate of the Charles II, a privateering vessel hired to plunder French shipping in the Caribbean. The mission was slow to start, however, and the crew languished in a Spanish port for several months without being paid. In May 1694, Every capitalized on the poor morale by leading his disgruntled crew in a mutiny. Upon seizing the Charles II, he announced his intention to turn pirate. “I am captain of this ship now,” he supposedly said. “I am bound to Madagascar, with the design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”
After renaming the Charles II the Fancy, Every and his upstart buccaneers set a course toward the southern tip of Africa. Their first raid came soon thereafter, when they ransacked three English merchant ships in the Cape Verde Islands. They continued to plunder their way along the African coastline for the next several months, capturing French and Danish ships and picking up new recruits. By the time the Fancy reached Madagascar in mid-1695, it was a floating rogues’ gallery of some 150 men.
Every’s early scores had won him the respect of his crew, but he soon set his sights on a more formidable quarry. He’d learned that a Mughal Empire fleet was soon to set sail from the Red Sea port of Mocha on a voyage home to Surat, India. Along with carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from their hajj to Mecca, the armada would also include several loot-filled merchant vessels and treasure ships owned by the Grand Mughal of India himself.
Every and his men cruised to the Red Sea in August 1695 and prepared to ambush the Mughal flotilla. To ensure they had significant firepower, they partnered with several other pirate ships including the Amity, an American raider captained by the famed buccaneer Thomas Tew. Only a few days later, the pirates spotted the 25-ship Mughal convoy as it raced toward the open ocean. They immediately took off in pursuit, burning or leaving behind their slower ships to keep pace. Most of the fleet slipped away, but the Fancy successfully ran down a lumbering escort vessel called the Fath Mahmamadi. After a brief firefight, the ship surrendered and was relieved of some 50,000 British pounds’ worth of gold and silver.
Every and his men resumed the hunt, and on September 7, their three remaining pirate ships caught up with the richest prize in the Indian fleet: the Grand Mughal flagship Ganj-i-Sawai. Unlike the Fath Mahmamadi, the Ganj-i-Sawai was more than capable of defending itself. It was the biggest ship in all of India, and boasted several dozen cannons and a complement of 400 riflemen—more than the entire pirate fleet combined.
Every gambled on an attack, and immediately scored a devastating blow when one of his first cannon volleys cut down the Ganj-i-Sawai’s mainmast. The Indian defenders then fell into disarray after one of their artillery pieces malfunctioned and exploded. Every brought the Fancy alongside the crippled Mughal ship and sent a boarding party scurrying onto its deck. A fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued, but the Indian soldiers were driven back after their captain abandoned them. According to one account, the cowardly officer took refuge below deck and ordered a group of slave girls to fight in his place.
After dispatching the leaderless Mughal resistance, the pirates sacked the Ganj-i-Sawai and brutalized its passengers. The men were tortured and killed, and the women—including an elderly relative of the Grand Mughal—were repeatedly raped. “The whole of the ship came under their control and they carried away all the gold and silver,” the Indian historian Khafi Khan later wrote. “After having remained engaged for a week, in searching for plunder, stripping the men of their clothes and dishonoring the old and young women, they left the ship and its passengers to their fate. Some of the women getting an opportunity, threw themselves into the sea to save their honor while others committed suicide using knives and daggers.”
The gold, silver, and jewels taken during the bloody Ganj-i-Sawai attack were worth somewhere between 325,000 and 600,000 British pounds—the equivalent of tens of millions today. After dividing the spoils, Every and his crew weighed anchor and set a course for the pirate-friendly Bahamas. Upon arriving at New Providence, they posed as slavers and bribed the island’s governor into letting them come ashore. Every also handed over the battle-scarred Fancy and a small fortune in ivory tusks.
While Every and his men relaxed in New Providence’s pubs, English authorities scrambled to deal with the political fallout from their raid. The attack had driven the Grand Mughal Aurangzeb into a rage, and he responded by arresting several higher-ups in the English East India Company, which he believed had conspired against him. Fearing the cancellation of their valuable trade agreements, the Company compensated the Mughals for what was stolen and vowed to bring the pirates to justice. East India Company and Royal Navy vessels were soon scouring the seas in search of the Fancy, and a large bounty was placed on Every’s head.
No one would get a chance to collect it. Having made the proverbial “last big score,” Every and his pirates scattered after only a short stay in the Caribbean. A few were later rounded up and executed, but the vast majority escaped to Europe and the American colonies. Every’s own fate remains something of a mystery. He is believed to have sailed to Ireland under the name “Bridgeman,” but his trail goes cold from there. Most of his contemporaries believed he made a clean getaway and retired with his loot. A few fictional works even described him as starting his own pirate haven on Madagascar. Years later, another tale would surface claiming Every had returned to his native England to settle down, only to be bilked out of his fortune by corrupt merchants. According to that version, the so-called “King of the Pirates” died poor and anonymous, “not being worth as much as would buy him a coffin.”