Bollywood’s latest potboiler, Thugs of Hindostan, pits Indian pirates against the East India Company. But the reality, as always, is somewhat different. During what was called the ‘golden age of piracy’, between 1650 and 1720, it was the English who were the pirates and the ships of the Mughals, one of the richest empires in the world, the target. One particular British pirate took the cake!
In the 17th century India, Surat was the wealthiest port of the subcontinent. It was here that the first representatives of the East India Company had arrived aboard the ship Hector, on 24th August 1608 and it was here that the company set up its first trading post, eleven years later. Surat served as the primary mercantile link of the Mughal Empire, with West Asia. The Mughals had gained control of the port town in 1573 during Akbar’s reign and the revenue from customs and other dues is said to have been some 4 lakhs annually. Trade aside, Surat was also important for Indian Muslims since it was the embarkation point for the Hajj pilgrimage.
Each year, ships carrying pilgrims and Indian exports of cotton, silk, wheat and carpets would leave Surat and return laden with Gold and Silver bullion. It was during this return voyage, that pirates targeted the Mecca fleet. Interestingly, in a disproportionately large number of accounts from the period, the victim was a certain Abdul Ghaffur, the biggest shipping magnate of Surat, whose own trade was at least equal to, if not greater than, the East India Company.
In August of 1695, the man referred to by many as the ‘King of Pirates’, Henry Avery had his eyes on the Mecca fleet. Avery had started his career in the Royal Navy, moving from there to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, between Africa and America, in the late 17th century. Eventually, he ended up serving on a Spanish expedition ship named Charles II. While the ship was in the Spanish port of Corunna, Avery took advantage of discontent among the crew members and led a mutiny in May 1694, taking over the ship and renaming it Fancy. Committing his first act of piracy in Maio, Avery had the Fancy modified, making it one of the fastest ships sailing the Atlantic. In 1695 he set sail for the volcanic island of Perim, in the Strait of Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, to wait for the Mecca fleet. The star of the fleet was the Ganj-i-Sawai.
At 1600 tonnes, Ganj-i-Sawai, meaning “infinite treasure”, was the largest Mughal ship in the port of Surat. It was returning from Mecca in 1695, under the command of Ibrahim Khan, armed with 80 cannons and 400 muskets. On board were pilgrims, and vast amounts of gold and silver earned from the sale of Indian exports. For purposes of security, the Ganj-i-Sawai travelled in a convoy of 24 ships. Most of the convoy was able to slip past Avery in the night. The first ship that the pirates apprehended, was not their primary target. It was the escort ship Fateh Mohammed. This ship was captured after a brief fight and the pirate squadron of 4 ships now went in pursuit of the Ganj-i-Sawai. They caught up with the ship the following afternoon when it was about 8 days away from Surat. The Ganj-i-Sawai was alone now, the other ships of the convoy having dispersed, but compared to the Fancy, it was far superior. It had more guns and more men, and according to eyewitness accounts of the time, the men on board did not appear fearful, but ready for a fight.
It was indeed the Ganj-i-Sawai which fired first as the pirate fleet drew near. But by a stroke of bad luck, one of her cannons exploded, killing several men and setting a part of the ship on fire. As the crew were distracted trying to put out the blaze, the Fancy drew close enough for the pirates to board the Ganj-i-Sawai and a fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued for the next two hours. The Mughal soldiers fought bravely but were ultimately overwhelmed. Their commander, Ibrahim Khan, however, seems to have hidden below decks with the women.
Among them were Turkish slave girls who had been purchased from Mecca. Ibrahim Khan, according to one report, put turbans on their heads and swords in their hands and exhorted them to fight! Once the pirates had made themselves masters of the ship, they carried off whatever provisions they needed, but the treasure that the ship was thought to be carrying was hidden away and the crew needed to be forced to reveal its location. For the next 3 days, the pirates subjected the passengers and crew to an orgy of rape and murder to get them to spill the beans. Several of the women on board committed suicide to avoid dishonour. Ultimately, the ship's treasure did fall into the hands of the pirates. There are multiple accounts of the value of the booty, but it seems it may have been as high as £ 600,000. Adjusting for inflation and converting to INR, this would mean in modern terms, the Ganj-i-Sawai’s treasure was worth more than 1100 crore rupees!
During the raid, nine crew members of the Ganj-i-Sawai had escaped on a small ‘huri’ boat and they reached Surat with information about the incident. The governor of Surat, Itimad Khan responded by sending out a Mughal flotilla along with four ships borrowed from the French and the Dutch to assist the Ganj-i-Sawai. But this flotilla returned to Surat unable to locate the ship. Then on the 12th of September, the Ganj-i-Sawai finally reached Surat. When the survivors, stripped of all their belongings, told their story of rape and plunder, a bloodthirsty mob surrounded the English factory, calling for reprisals. The survivors were certain that the pirates were English and were closely associated with the English in Bombay (now Mumbai). Several recalled the pirates saying that the raid was revenge for what Siddi Yaqut, the Mughal admiral had done to the English during the Child’s War, fought by the EIC and the Mughal Empire, lasted from 1686 to 1690. Among the passengers there had been many women from aristocratic Sayyid families and rumour has it that one elderly woman was from Aurangzeb’s own family. The English in the factory would certainly have been lynched had Itimad Khan not surrounded the factory with his soldiers and placed the company’s factors under house arrest. Further English prisoners were brought to Surat from Suvali and Bharuch.
A furious Aurangzeb ordered the trade of all European nations in his dominions to be stopped and all traders to be confined to their factories. But the emperor was also a pragmatic man, and historian, Sir Jadunath Sircar ('History of Aurangzib: The closing years, 1689-1707') writes that it was his aim to force the foreign companies trading in India to provide an armed escort for the Indian ships. It was the English who ultimately agreed to provide an armed escort and upon the agreement being signed, all prisoners were set free on the 27th of June, 1696. But this did not end the menace of piracy. Talk of the raid on the emperor’s ship reached England and under pressure from factors who feared for their very lives, the Board of Directors in London of the East India Company were able to secure a proclamation placing a bounty of £500 on Avery’s head. The contract to hunt down Avery was secured by the governor of New York, who sent out the heavily armed ship Adventure, captained by the Scottish Sailer, Captain William Kidd. But far from stopping piracy, Kidd himself became one of the most notorious pirates! He teamed up with a Dutch pirate captain named Dirk Shivers and raided several more Indian ships. A frustrated Aurangzeb ultimately demanded, and secured compensation for the losses to Indian shipping and forced the Europeans to sign an agreement making them responsible for all acts of piracy against Indians.
But what of Avery? When the loot from the Ganj-i-Sawai was distributed, each man is said to have received £1000 in addition to gemstones. This was more money than a sailor could hope to make in an entire lifetime. But the enormous success of their raid had also made them marked men. To elude the global manhunt, Avery’s crew scattered all over the world. Several sailed to the North American colonies where some bribed the Governor of Pennsylvania for his protection. Meanwhile, several of Avery’s crew were also apprehended in England and more than a dozen of them were brought to trial in 1696.
Avery himself was never apprehended. There are reports and rumours of his having lived out the rest of his life in poverty in Devon, England. Legend has it that on board the Ganj-i-Sawai, Avery had found “something more pleasing than jewels” – a Mughal princess. This seems highly unlikely, although it is a persistent rumour, and it is much more likely that Avery took one of the Mughal female attendants with him. Out of this union was born a son who came to be known as Tom Similaho, known to Europeans as Mulatto Tom, and he went on to carve out a kingdom for himself in Eastern Madagascar around 1712 CE. 'Mulatto' was a local term to describe the descendants of pirates, who had settled down in Madagascar.
But Henry Avery, the greatest thug of ‘Inglistaan’, remained a free man until his last day!
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about Kolkata since 2013 and hopes to release a book on Kolkata's history soon.
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