The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 31: Captain Avery

Any jokes about waiting for buses, then two come along at once, are definitely not appreciated.

This one is a spin-off from that previous post, where we ought to have encountered George MacDonald Fraser‘s incomparable (and a bit vain with it) epitome of the all-purpose matinee-idol hero …


Captain Benjamin Avery…

of the King’s Navy, fresh from distinguished service against the Sallee Rovers, in his decent lodging at Greenwich, making a careful toilet, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, adjusting his plain but spotless neckcloth, shooting his cuffs just so, and bidding a polite but aloof good morning to the adoring serving-maid as she brings in his breakfast of cereal, two boiled eggs, toast and coffee, and scurries out with a breathless, fluttering curtsey. Captain Avery straightens his coat and decides as he contemplates his splendid reflection that preferment and promotion must soon be the lot of such a brilliant and deserving young officer.

If you’d been there you would have seen his point, and the adoring maid’s. Captain Avery was everything that a hero of historical romance should be; he was all of Mr Sabatini’s supermen rolled into one, and he knew it. The sight of him was enough to make ordinary men feel that they were wearing odd socks, and women to go weak at the knees. Not that his dress was magnificent; it was sober, neat, and even plain, but as worn by Captain Avery it put mere finery to shame. Nor did he carry himself with ostentation, but with that natural dignity, nay austerity, coupled with discretion and modesty, which come of innate breeding. His finely-chiselled features bespoke both the man of action and the philosopher, their youthful lines tempered by a maturity beyond his years; there was beneath his composed exterior a hint of steely power, etc., etc. You get the picture.

For the record, this wonder boy was six feet two, with shoulders like a navvy and the waist of a ballerina; his legs were long and shapely, his hips narrow, and he moved like a classy welterweight coming out at the first bell. His face was straight off the B.O.P. cover, with its broad unclouded brow, long fair hair framing his smooth-shaven cheeks; his nose was classic, his mouth firm but not hard, his eyes clear dark grey and wide-set, his jaw strong and slightly cleft, and his teeth would have sent Kirk Douglas scuttling shamefaced to his dentist. His expression was at once noble, alert and intelligent, deferential yet commanding … sorry, we’re off again.

In short, Captain Avery was the young Errol Flynn, only more so, with a dash of Power and Redford thrown in; the answer to a maiden’s prayer, and between ourselves, rather a pain in the neck.

pyratesYeah. We’ve all suffered in comparison to one of those. There, at the head of this post, is the wood-cut from Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates. Sure enough, the very first subject “Captain Charles Johnson” ( generally believed a pseudonym, perhaps of Daniel Defoe, and not the author of the play mentioned next) addresses is our Avery.

John? Jack? Ben? Henry?

Next we turn to the Dictionary of National Biography, which gives us a brief account:

Avery, Henry [known as Captain John Avery] (bap. 1659, d. 1696?), pirate, the son of John and Anne Evarie, was baptized on 23 August 1659 at Newton Ferrers, near Plymouth. He joined the Royal Navy and was a midshipman in the Rupert and a mate in the Albemarle. In 1693 he joined a privateering expedition as first mate of the Charles, one of four armed merchant ships which set off from London to salvage Spanish treasure ships in the West Indies. They were delayed for some months in Corunna, and failure to pay the seamen’s wages provoked a mutiny. On 7 May 1694 Avery and sixty-five men seized the Charles while her captain was laid low with fever. They put the captain and sixteen men ashore, renamed the ship Fancy, and headed for the Indian Ocean. They looted several ships en route, called in at Madagascar for water and provisions, and sailed to the mouth of the Red Sea where they were joined by several other pirate ships. On 8 September 1695 Avery led an attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai, a treasure ship belonging to the Mughal emperor of India. Having plundered the ship of huge quantities of gold and silver, Avery and his men sailed to the West Indies where they went their separate ways. Six of the crew were later caught and, after a trial at the Old Bailey in October 1696, five of them were hanged. Avery was never heard of again. Although it is impossible to substantiate, he is reported to have returned to England, settled in Bideford, Devon, and died in poverty in 1696, after being cheated out of his fortune by Bristol merchants. His exploits inspired several books and ballads, including The Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery (1709?), by which name he was sometimes known in publications, and a play by Charles Johnson entitled The Successful Pyrate which opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in November 1712 and was published the following year.

41EJK61EJFL._The subscribed author is David Cordingly, a prolific writer of popular and very readable, naval histories.

His Life Among the Pirates starts by considering what it is that continues to fascinate readers about the pirates of that magical period, around the start of the Eighteenth Century. Properly, he starts with Robert Louis Stevenson’s best-seller, Treasure Island, which relies on and develops so many of the characters and characteristic machinery of the genre.

Then (page 33) he comes to Avery, expanding on the limited material he had for the DNB entry:

If ever there was a typical pirate, Henry Avery would fit the bill. He was not aristocratic. He was not notoriously cruel. And, like so many of his kind, his career as a pirate was surprisingly short. He is not so well known today as Captain Kidd and Blackbeard, and he ended his days in obscurity, but during his lifetime he became a legend…

Henry Avery (also known as John Avery, Long Ben and Captain Bridgeman) did not conform to any of the popular images we have of pirates today. He was of middle height, rather fat, with a dissolute appearance and what was described as a jolly complexion.

The jack-pot

Cordingly then recounts (pages 34-35) how Avery and his mates mutinied and went rogue:

They re-named the ship the Fancy and sailed south. They plundered three English ships in the Cape Verde Islands, and captured two Danish ships on the west coast of Africa near the island of Principe. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, they headed for the north-east corner of Madagascar where they dropped anchor and went ashore for much needed provisions. Avery’s plan was to intercept the ships of the pilgrim fleet which sailed every year from the Indian port of Surat across to Mocha at the mouth of the Red Sea and then up to Mecca. The fleet was almost as attractive a target for pirates as the Spanish treasure ships were for the buccaneers in the Caribbean, because merchants travelled with the pilgrims so that they could trade spices and cloth for gold and coffee. The emperor of the Mogul Empire in India, who was known as the Great Mogul, also sent his own ships with the fleet.

In September 1695 Avery was cmising off the mouth of the Red Sea in the Fancy which was now armed with forty-six guns and had a crew of 150 men. He was joined by a number of other pirate ships, including the Pearl and the Portsmouth Adventure from Rhode Island and the Amity from New York. The first ship in the pilgrim fleet to fall into the pirates’ hands was the Fath Mahmamadi, which was looted of gold and silver worth more than £50,000. A few days later Avery sighted the ship which was to make his fortune and whose capture was to create the legends. The Ganj-i-Sawai (or Gunsway as she was later called) was the largest of the ships belonging to the Great Mogul. She had forty guns and her captain, Muhammed Ibrahim, had four hundred rifles to defend her against attack, which made the ship a formidable opponent.

Avery had luck on his side. As his flotilla of pirate ships approached the Ganj-i-Sawai one of his first shots brought down the Muslim ship’s mainmast. Then one of her cannon exploded, causing carnage and confusion on deck. The fight lasted two hours, but when the pirates came alongside and boarded her they met with little resistance. The Indian historian Khafi Kahn wrote that the captain of the Ganj-i-Sawai dressed up some Turkish girls as men and urged them to light while he fled below deck and hid himself in the hold.

According to the stories which circulated afterwards, one of the Great Mogul’s daughters was on the ship, together with her attendants, a number of slave girls, and many wealthy merchants. Avery claimed that no harm was done to the women, but one of the pirate crew later confessed at his trial that ‘the most horrid barbarities’ were committed. All the evidence suggests that the pirates embarked on an orgy of rape, torture and plunder which lasted several days as the ships lay becalmed in the Arabian Sea. Huge quantities of gold and silver were looted, including 500,000 rials which, when divided among the pirates, produced at least £1,000 for every man with a full share.

With the taking of this prize Avery wisely decided to retire from his brief career as a pirate. He abandoned the other pirate ships which had sailed with him and headed for the West Indies. He bribed the Governor of New Providence to allow his men to come ashore and presented him with his ship and £1,000 worth of ivory tusks. The pirates went their separate ways, some heading for Carolina and others for England. Six of Avery’s crew were eventually caught. In October 1696 they were tried at the Old Bailey in London, amid considerable public excitement, and sentenced to death.

An ending, happy or not?

We can be sure only that Avery disappears from factual history. As we see, Cordingly believes he returned home to Devon, and died in poverty and obscurity. That isn’t adequate for the romancers.

In 1709 a London publisher produced The life and adventures of Capt. John Avery, the famous English pirate, (rais’d from a cabbin-boy, to a King) now in possession of MadagascarThe author was named as Adrian van Broeck (another pseudonym). This would have it that Avery settled in Madagascar, and some prosperity, with the Emperor Aurangzeb’s granddaughter.

Meanwhile, the Emperor, the Great Mogul, was less happy. The diplomatic ructions Avery had caused the East India Company is another story.

He’s just a mixed-up guy, huh?

25852270.0.mFor yet another take on the very legend, try chapter 4 of Hans Turley’s Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity.

That will show how Defoe is to blame:

In Avery’s world, Defoe eroticised money and material wealth, as he does in Moll Flanders and Roxana. There is a connection between the ambiguous sexuality of the pirate and the “phallic” sexuality displaced onto jewels and money that we see in Moll Flanders and Roxana. The ability to make money outside “normal” channels of trade and inheritance — in Moll’s case, for example, her life of crime and prostitution — seems to unmoor identity from traditional sexual as well as economic definitions.

Which all seems too rich a diet for me.


1 Comment

Filed under crime, Defoe, History, Naval history, reading

One response to “The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 31: Captain Avery

  1. Pingback: The not-so-great and the not-so-good, no. 32: Lancelot Blackburne | Malcolm Redfellow's Home Service

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