On the Further Reading page, you’ll find a reference to a book called A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, by Captain Charles Johnson.
Captain Johnson’s book was first published in 1724, right smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Piracy, by a fellow about whom nothing is known. Was he Daniel Defoe, the popular novelist of the age? Maybe. Was he himself a pirate, writing under a false name so as not to get hanged for his crimes? Likely.
Regardless, most of our knowledge of pirates from this era comes from him. There were newspaper accounts, and official records, of course, but nothing that comes even close to the depth of detail provided by the good captain.
And no story in his History is as ironic or poetically pleasing as his story of Captain Henry Avery. What is most fascinating about Avery’s story is this it’s very short, stunningly wicked, and is actually three stories – three forks of a tale, or tail.
Part One: Duke’s Crew.
In 1695, the Spanish have trouble keeping English pirates from taking ships bound for their ports in the Caribbean. As they don’t have enough ships themselves, they hire, in England, two powerful British ships, the Duke and the Duchess, to patrol the Caribbean waters on their behalf.
These are powerful ships, of 30 guns each. Captain Gibson, in command of the Duke, is a well-respected, established sea officer with many years of experience behind him. His first mate is a fellow named Henry Avery, born some years before in Devonshire, near Plymouth, England. Avery is a tough and able sailor.
Avery notices early on in the voyage from Plymouth to Jamaica that Captain Gibson likes to drink and pass out in his bunk early in the evening. Every evening. Avery sees that the crew notices this, too.
It doesn’t take much for Avery to convince the bad apples in Duke’s crew, and there are many of those, that it wouldn’t take much effort to steal control of the ship away from Captain Gibson.
One night, while Captain Gibson sleeps drunkenly in his cot, Avery orders the ship to weigh anchor, and off they sail for India. The captain awakens with a start when he senses the changed motion of the ship.
“Are we run aground?” he stammers.
“No, Captain,” replies Avery, who is in the cabin when the captain awakens. “I have taken your ship from you, and we are at sea. Pray, put your clothes on and come out to the main deck. I will put you and those who don’t wish to go to sea with us ashore in a boat.”
Which is exactly what happens – Captain Gibson and five of his men watch the Duke sail over the horizon with almost a hundred sailors, all of who had turned pirate.
That’s the story according to Captain Johnson. Wikipedia doesn’t describe this part of Avery’s history, and differs from the good Captain in detail for what comes next. We’ll stick with Captain Johnson’s story, because it’s intriguing.
Avery puts into a small bay on the island of Madagascar to find wood and water. There he meets Captains Tew and Dew, each in command of a small sloop. The three agree they should go a’pirating together.
The three ships together attack and overwhelm an Indian royal ship, belonging to, according to Johnson, the Grand Mogul himself. The ship is packed with passengers who are on their Mecca, and have brought enormous piles of gold and diamonds and money as offerings.
Johnson glosses quickly over what happened aboard that ship in his book. But the details you’ll find on Wikipedia make it clear that these men were barbaric at the least. It must simply have been horrifying for the pilgrims on that ship.
So, according to Johnson, before splitting up the wealth, Avery himself lines his pockets with the diamonds that he finds, knowing that his fortune is made. He has quite hit the jackpot.
After they dispatch the Mogul’s ship, Captains Avery, Tew, and Dew hold a council as to how best to secure the treasure. All three captains agree that they don’t need to be pirates anymore, as their futures are secure. All they have to do is get the treasure off of the sea, away from capture by other pirates. Avery suggests, and they all agree, that the Duke is the most powerful of the three ships, and should therefore carry the treasure.
They all make a solemn pact to meet at Madagascar to divvy up the goods. They drink, they shake hands, Tew and Dew row back to their ships, and, in the dark of night, Avery quietly sails away with everything.
Avery and the Duke’s crew divvy up the treasure amongst themselves, and each member of the crew finds himself terribly wealthy.
This is where the first part of the story concludes: the crew is terrified of getting caught as pirates, so they break up, and wander off into the wilds of North America – some to the Carolinas, some to New England – assuming new names and leaving their horrible crime behind them. Some became landed gentlemen – we’ll never know who, because everybody changed names.
So, what became of Captain Avery? That’s part two.
And what of Tew and Dew? Oh, that’s a fascinating story – very much part three.