Early Modern Times – Avery tall tale?

Early Modern Times - Avery tall tale?

Dear readers,

My Dalhousie colleague Shao-Pin Luo alerted me to this recent Guardian article on the discovery of Arabian coins at a you-pick orchard in Rhode Island which may be a clue to the fate of pirate captain Henry Every, also known as Henry Avery. In fact, Captain Avery is the subject of the first chapter of volume 1 of Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates (1724), the coursebook for EMSP 2480/HIST 2750: The Pirate & Piracy. How might the Arabian coins have ended up in New England, and how would that be connected to the account of Avery (depicted above) in Johnson’s seminal history–which, it must be noted, is full of fiction as well as fact? Top off your beaker o’ rum, make yourselves comfortable on deck, and listen to Avery–or at least somewhat–tall tale.

Johnson’s book used to be wrongly attributed to Daniel Defoe–the author of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and that essential item on any pandemic reading list, A Journal of the Plague Year–based on circumstantial evidence: the interest in marginal, transgressive figures and in creations of new societies in exotic locales is a feature of both Defoe’s novels and the compilation by Johnson, a former sea-captain about whom little else is known. Still, just as Defoe’s narratives are infused with factual details, so many of the chapters in A General History are to some degree fictionalised (and in one prominent chapter about the Deistic pirate Misson who founds a society called Libertalia, wholly fictional–a sort of Misson impossible). Even when Johnson’s account is supported by the historical record, he selects evidence to emphasise a moralistic point as well as sensationalise details to sell copies of his book (which was a bestseller in its time). And like Defoe’s fictional narrators who are unreliable, Johnson is concerned to establish the verisimilitude of his account: he wants to represent himself as Defoe of untruth.

Hence, in his chapter on Avery, Johnson declares from the outset that his narrative will disprove the false stories about Avery having married the Indian Mogul emperor’s daughter and become a sort of prince of Madagascar, when in fact he ended up as a pauper in England. In 1697, England signed the Treaty of Ryswick with Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries against France. The French were, however, smuggling goods to Spanish colonists in Peru, which was expressly against the laws of Spain. The Spanish crown called upon foreign ships to assist their suppression of these smugglers, including the British ship the Duke (according to Johnson, but it was actually the Charles II), commanded by a Captain Gibson with first mate Henry Avery. Gibson, however, was addicted to punch and Avery plotted to steal the ship; and so in 1694, the heavily inebriated Gibson became a punch-ing bag while Avery whisked away the ship, renaming it the Fancy and facing the slings and arrows of outrageous piracy on the dangerous high seas. In other words, it became a Duke of hazard.

Avery forced Gibson to follow his designs and command. The now Captain Avery sailed to Madagascar, encountering two sloops (small, single-masted sailing ships) there which had themselves escaped from West Indian service. Avery convinced the sloop crews to join him in piracy. In September 1695, Avery’s fleet sailed along the Arabian coast near the Indus river and seized an astounding prize (i.e., captured ship). This was one of the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb’s own ships which carried his daughter and pilgrims to Mecca–who brought with them jewels, gold, and silver. What were for the pilgrims rich religious offerings became valuable booty for Avery and crew, a blasphemous way to Mecca fortune.

Aurangzeb threatened to retaliate upon English settlements in India. The East Indian Company, which managed Britain’s empire in South and Southeast Asia, pacified the emperor by promising to apprehend the pirates. The prize, Johnson remarks, caused a great stir in both Europe and India, leading to the untrue accounts he dismisses at the beginning of the chapter (as I noted above). In other words, he seeks to dispel piratical rum-oars.

Avery now proposed to the sloop crews that it would be safer to keep the valuable plunder aboard the Fancy, as a larger and steadier ship than theirs. This was, of course, a trick to seize all the booty for himself and his crew. The Fancy soon slooped away, giving the accompanying vessels the sloop. He decided to sail to the Americas, and landed in New England. The Guardian article notes that Avery pretended to be a slave-trader to conceal his piracy, as the seizure of human cargo from Africa was legal in a way that robbing the Mogul emperor’s ship was not. This is how Arabian coins from Avery’s booty could have ended up in Rhode Island. In other words, Avery pretended to slave in order to save.

Avery’s diamonds, Johnson writes, aroused suspicion, so he scarpered back to England and left his ill-gotten gains in the safekeeping of Bristol merchants. The merchants soon Bristoled at the thought of returning the booty, and threatened to reveal Avery’s identity if he insisted on reclaiming the loot. Avery was now destitute as well as dejected. He soon fell ill and died, and it was said that his estate could not even afford a coffin. There is, however, no evidence that Avery became a pauper in England. We must conclude, then, that Johnson either repeated a false rumour or concocted a fictional ending to serve as this moral to the story: when it comes to a life of crime, it’s Avery man for himself.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Piratcatcher Studies Program

Page Break