How Henry Every Became The ‘King Of Pirates’ During The Late 17th Century

Published June 16, 2021
Updated July 13, 2023

A former sailor in the British Royal Navy, Henry Every led a mutiny on the Charles II ship in 1694. Soon after, he made a name for himself as one of the most feared pirates on the high seas.

Henry Every had led a rambling, violent career by the time he signed onto an ill-fated trading expedition. Deciding to take his chances — even if it meant defying the law — he gathered a crew and struck out for the Red Sea to loot the fabulous riches of India in the 1690s.

And he pulled off a robbery that humiliated an emperor and nearly ended British India before it began.

Ganj I Sawai

Wikimedia CommonsHenry Every, alias Avery, alias Benjamin Bridgeman, alias Long Ben, led a small flotilla of pirates in his attack on some of the riches ships afloat before escaping with his spoils.

Leaving an international scandal and a worldwide manhunt in his wake, Every filled his pockets with gold and vanished. While no one is certain of his ultimate fate, there’s good reason why he’s been known ever since as “the King of Pirates.”

Henry Every’s Early Career At Sea

Battle Of Beachy Head

Rijksmuseum/Wikimedia CommonsHenry Every may have fought in the Battle of Beachy Head in 1690, when a French fleet routed a combined force of English and Dutch ships.

Like many pirates of the time, Henry Every’s some events of his life remain a matter of debate, with legends and lost records obscuring the truth. He was likely born into a respectable family on Aug. 20, 1659, near the English port city of Plymouth.

Entering the Royal Navy around 1670, Every worked his way up the ranks, eventually serving in the Nine Years’ War against France. After a brief career as a slave trader, he was invited to join a trading expedition to the Spanish West Indies.

In the spring of 1693, the wealthy London merchant Sir James Houblon obtained a salvage and trading license from Carlos II, the Spanish monarch. Houblon outfitted a small fleet of ships — the James, the Dove, the Seventh Son, and a flagship, the 46-gun Charles II, named for the Spanish king — and stocked them with trade goods and salvaging equipment to harvest the rich wrecks of countless Spanish galleons.

Houblon’s wealth allowed him to offer pay far in excess of what the Royal Navy offered, with one high-ranking crewman earning the modern equivalent of about $20,000 for two years’ work. That and the promise of better food and conditions attracted over 200 of the best mariners then active, and the ships soon sailed down the Thames.

Mutiny In The Spanish Expedition

Every Receiving Treasure

Wikimedia CommonsEvery set off on a piratical career along the coast of Africa, where he’d condemned countless others to slavery after leaving the Royal navy.

They only made it as far as A Coruña, Spain. The necessary paperwork was delayed, leaving the expedition stuck in port. While his agents argued with Spanish bureaucrats, Houblon cut the food budget, forcing the men to eat “a little bit of Irish beef … which had lain in pickle two or three years and was as crusty as the Devil.”

To drink, there was only their own urine.

More importantly, Houblon stopped the men’s wages. As weeks stretched into months, the foul conditions and the withheld pay led to a growing fury. The men and even their wives sent petitions to Houblon, only for the sailors responsible to be imprisoned.

At that time, Every went “up & down from Ship to Ship & perswaded the men to come on board [with] him, & he would carry them where they should get money enough.” On shore, he plotted with fellow sailors in whispers over drinks.

Finally, on the night of May 7, 1694, the crew of the Charles II, fastest of the fleet, mutinied with the help of sailors from the James — with Henry Every leading them. The rebel sailors swiftly sailed out of port and vanished into the night.

Every told the 85 men on board that, if they would follow him to India, they could plunder vast fortunes from the ships of the East India Company and the Mughal Empire. He vowed it would be enough to buy immunity or anonymity in the colonies or in England itself and retire in grand style.

After months of rotten food, poor treatment, and no pay for their trouble, the idea was thrilling to the crew. They immediately declared Every their new captain and set sail for Madagascar. Along the way, Captain Every rechristened their ship the Fancy, and word of his deeds reached London — the beginnings of a legend.

Henry Every Assembles His Pirate Armada

Henry Every's Ship

GettyHenry Every’s ship the Fancy was among the fastest afloat, and the only one capable of catching up to the Ganj-i-Sawai after a day-long chase.

Every, sailing south along the coast of Africa, attacked several merchant vessels, raided for supplies, and recruited captured sailors until his crew numbered 184. Then, he cut the top deck off of the Fancy to increase its already considerable speed.

Off the coast of Madagascar, he left behind a letter in which he wrote that he had “never as Yett Wronged any English or Dutch nor never Intend while I am Commander” along with instructions for a signal to indicate that an approaching ship was friendly.

The Fancy then encountered two American privateers, or licensed pirate ships: Captain Richard Want’s Dolphin and Captain Joseph Faro’s Portsmouth Adventure. The three captains agreed to work together before proceeding to the mouth of the Red Sea, between modern Djibouti and Yemen.

There, they met Captain Thomas Wake in the Susanna, Captain William Mayes in the Pearl, and the famed pirate Thomas Tew, commander of the Amity, who’d captured an Ottoman ship worth £100,000 ($27.3 million in 2021) in 1693. The six ships had a combined strength of 440 men. Although Tew was the most experienced, Every was elected admiral of the fleet.

Every Brutally Captures The Mughal Emperor’s Fortune

Henry Every Card

The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick, Metropolitan Museum of ArtA fictional portrayal of Every on an early 20th century cigarette card. Despite numerous popular depictions, no one actually knows what Henry Every looked like.

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb was both a pious Muslim, a shrewd businessman, and owner of such ships as the towering Ganj-i-Sawai, a vast trade ship bristling with 80 guns whose express purpose was to trade along the East African coast between carrying pilgrims on their way to Mecca.

Each year, ships like the Ganj-i-Sawai, or “Exceeding Treasure” in Persian, and her heavily-armed escort the Fath Mahmaddi sailed from the Red Sea bulging with gold, silver, ivory, luxurious fabrics, spices, and rare fruits. Few would have dared to challenge them and risk the rage of the Indian emperor.

This was Every’s target.

Once the Mughal ships had entered the Red Sea, the pirate fleet gave chase. The Amity and the Susanna were too slow. The Amity encountered and attacked the Fath Mahmaddi, but Tew was disemboweled by a cannonball and his crew captured.

On Sept. 7, 1695, Tew’s men were released when the Fath Mahmaddi passed by the Fancy and surrendered without a shot, giving up its cargo of £60,000 ($1.8 million).

Just then, a lookout spotted the Ganj-i-Sawai on the horizon, and Every flew after it. As the smaller English vessels pulled alongside, the Indians’ cannonballs flew far overhead. Suddenly, one of the Ganj-i-Sawai’s guns exploded, killing 25 and wounding 20. In the confusion, the Fancy’s crew boarded and forced the Indians to surrender.

In a scene conspicuously absent from Hollywood’s countless pirate romances, Every and his men held the crew and passengers of the Ganj-i-Sawai captive for several days, raping and torturing them to force them to reveal the location of their treasure.

At last, Henry Every came away with roughly £200,000 ($42.4 million) — possibly the largest score in the history of piracy.

The Manhunt For Henry Every And The Fancy

Every Selling Jewels

Wikimedia CommonsAlthough later writers would claim that Henry Every was cheated out of his stolen fortune and died a pauper, his true fate remains unknown.

The defeat, robbery, and brutal treatment of the captives was a profound humiliation for Aurangzeb. Ordinary Indians were convinced that the East India Company was involved, and demanded the execution or expulsion of Company agents.

Angry mobs and imperial troops surrounded English trading posts, and the Company might have been wiped out entirely had they not promised to reimburse the Mughal crown.

When Parliament offered a £500 reward for Henry Every’s head in 1696, the Company doubled it to the modern equivalent of nearly $270,000. In an instant, every adventurer and bounty hunter in the English-speaking world was on the hunt.

Every, meanwhile, purchased 90 inhabitants of Réunion Island to disguise himself as a slave trader and sailed straight for the Bahamas, where he and his men could buy protection. They stopped just once along the 7,700 mile journey, at Ascension Island, to replenish their food.

Upon arrival at Nassau, Every paid a £1,000 bribe to the governor for safe passage and gave the Fancy to a local military officer. The crew split up, some following their captain and others making their own way. About 30 were captured and tried, but only five found guilty and hanged at Execution Dock in London.

The deeds of Henry Every and his crew, both thrilling and gruesome, inspired countless songs, making the pirate something of a folk hero for years to come. Daniel Defoe’s 1719 book The King of Pirates was based on Every, whom he may have known. The playwright Charles Johnson wrote a popular play, The Successful Pyrate, in which Every is depicted as a heroic democratic ruler in Madagascar after his escape.

Every himself disappeared in June 1696 — some said to Madagascar, others to London, and others still to his native Devon. Over the following years, some would claim to have spotted the King of Pirates, preventing him from enjoying a pardon as long as there was doubt about his death.

It may be that he died in poverty, as some claimed. Or it could be that Henry Every was one of the few pirates ever to get away with his crimes and live to enjoy his ill-gotten gains.

After learning the story of Henry Every, read about Anne Bonny, the ferocious pirate queen who broke every rule in her career in the Caribbean. Then, read about matelotage, the unique pirate custom of early gay marriage.

Morgan Dunn
Morgan Dunn is a freelance writer who holds a Bachelor's degree in fine art and art history from Goldsmiths, University of London. His areas of interest include the Soviet Union, China, and the effects of colonialism.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.