Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Captain John Avery

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CONCERNING this captain it is not easy to give a trustworthy account as the discrepancies between the narratives of his life and adventures are considerable, and the means of discriminating between the true and the fictitious are not available. He is a Flying Dutchman who appears in weird and terrible scenes, and then vanishes into mist.

The authorities for his adventures, such as they are, are these:—

(a) "The Life of Captain Avery" in Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Robberies and Murders of Notorious Pyrates, from 1717. London, 1724.

(b) The Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery. I. Baker. London, 1709.

(c) The Famous Adventures of Captain John Avery of Plymouth. Falkirk, 1809. Probably a reprint of an earlier Life.

(d) The King of Pirates. (Supposed to be by Daniel Defoe.) London, 1720.

With regard to (a) Johnson gives no authority for his narrative, and it widely differs in the sequel from (b) and (c).

(b) purports to be written by Adrian Van Broeck, a Dutchman, who was a prisoner for some time with Avery in Madagascar, but he effected his escape in a vessel of the East India Company, and his narrative terminates abruptly with the severance of his connexion with the pirates.

(c). In this as we have it late version, all the early life of John Avery is given totally different from (a) and (b). Little or no reliance can be placed on it, and as to (b) it is hard to say whether Van Broeck's is a fictitious narrative or whether he records actual facts. It is singular that Johnson should not have spoken explicitly about this, the first published record of the pirate's adventures.

(d) purports to be Avery's story of his own life, but it is almost certainly a product of Defoe's lively imagination.

On the whole Johnson's account is the most reliable, and we will follow that, noticing the divergences from it in (b), and will take no account of (c) and (d). Johnson begins: "None of the bold adventurers on the Seas were ever so much talk'd of for a while as Avery. He was represented in Europe as one that had rais'd himself to the Dignity of a King, and was likely to be the Founder of a new Monarchy; having, as it was said, taken immense Riches, and married the Great Mogul's Daughter, who was taken in an Indian Ship which fell into his Hands; by whom he had many Children, living in great Royalty and State: That he had built Forts, elected Magistrates, and was Master of a stout Squadron of Ships, mann'd with able and desperate Fellows of all Nations. That he gave Commissions out in his own Name to the Captains of his Ships, and to the Commanders of the Forts, and was acknowledg'd by them as their Prince. A Play was
Cap. Avery - Devonshire characters and strange events.jpg

CAPT AVERY and his Crew taking one of the GREAT MOGUL ships

writ upon him, call'd The Successful Pyrate;[1] and these Accounts obtained such Belief that several Schemes were offer'd to the Council for sending out a Squadron to take him; while others were for offering him and his Companions an Act of Grace and inviting them to England with all their Treasure, lest his growing Greatness might hinder the Trade of Europe to the East Indies.

"Yet all these were no more than false Rumours, improv'd by the Credulity of some, and the Humour of others who love to tell strange Things; for, while it was said he was aspiring at a Crown, he wanted a Shilling; and at the same Time it was given out he was in Possession of such prodigious Wealth in Madagascar he was starving in England."

John Avery was a native of Plymouth; according to (b) he was born in 1653. His father had served under Admiral Blake, then left the navy for the merchant service, but died whilst John was still young, and to his sixth year was brought up by his aunt, Mrs. Norris. The story in (c) is that his mother kept the tavern with the "Sign of the Defiance," and because one night she refused to receive a drunken party of sailors, in revenge they carried off her son and took him on board their ship, where the captain, taking a liking to him, carried him with him to Carolina. After three years he returned to Plymouth and was placed under the guardianship of a Mr. Lightfoot. At the age of forty-four he entered on board the Duke a merchant vessel, Captain Gibson.

At this time, by the Peace of Ryswick, 1697, there was an alliance betwixt Spain, England, and Holland against France; previous to this the French had carried on a smuggling trade with the Spaniards in Peru, which was against the law that reserved the trade with the Spanish possessions in the New World to Spaniards alone. Accordingly a fleet was ever kept at sea to guard the coast and seize as prizes any foreign vessels that approached within a certain number of leagues. But as this fleet was very inefficient, the French smugglers became vastly daring. Accordingly, the Spanish Government, after the conclusion of the peace, hired three large vessels, built at Bristol, to serve as preventive ships on the South American coast. The merchants of Bristol at once fitted out two of thirty guns each, and one hundred and twenty hands apiece, for service under the Spanish Government, and one of them was the Duke; and in it as mate sailed our hero, John Avery. These two vessels were ordered to sail for Corunna, thence to take some Spanish officers on board. Before sailing Avery, as first mate, got into close communication with both crews and persuaded them to mutiny so soon as they got to sea, and instead of serving the Spanish Government, to sweep the Indian Sea as pirates. Captain Gibson was nightly addicted to punch, and spent most of his time on land in drinking and getting drunk. The day of sailing, however, he did not go ashore, but tippled in his cabin. The men who were not privy to the design, as well as he, turned into their hammocks, leaving none on deck but the conspirators. At the time agreed upon, ten o'clock at night, the long-boat of the consort, called the Duchess approached. Avery hailed, and was answered by the men, "Is your drunken boatswain on board?" which was the watchword agreed upon between them. Avery replied in the affirmative, and sixteen men from the boat came on board, joined the company, and proceeded to secure the hatches. They did not slip the anchor, but weighed it leisurely, and so put to sea without disorder, though there were several ships lying around.

The captain awoke, roused by the motion of the vessel and the noise of working the tackle, and rang his bell. Thereupon Avery and two others went to him. He, half asleep, shouted out, "What is the matter?" To which Avery replied coolly, "Nothing." The captain retorted, "Something is the matter. Does she drive? What is the weather?" "No, no," said Avery, "we are at sea with a fair wind." "At sea!" exclaimed Captain Gibson, "how can that be?" "Don't be alarmed," said Avery; "put on your clothes, and I'll let you into a secret. You must know that now I am captain of the ship, and that henceforth this is my cabin, so please to walk out of it. I am bound for Madagascar to seek my fortune, and that of the brave fellows who have joined with me."

The captain was now thoroughly roused, and in a great fright. Avery bade him not fear. If he chose to throw in his lot with them, he would be received, but must remain sober and mind his own business, and if he conducted himself properly would be made lieutenant. If he refused he might have the long-boat and go ashore in it. The captain preferred the latter alternative; he was accordingly put into the boat along with such seamen, five or six in all, who would not throw in their lot with the mutineers. The two ships proceeded to Madagascar, and came across a couple of sloops at anchor on the north-east of the island. These were manned by mutineers as well, and both parties speedily came to an agreement to hunt together, and they now sailed for India. Off the mouth of the Indus they espied a large vessel flying the Great Mogul's colours. Avery opened fire, and the sloops ran close to her, one on the bow, the other on the quarter, and boarded her. She at once struck her colours. She was a vessel of the Great Mogul, bound with a load of pilgrims for Arabia to make the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. On board were also a lady with her retinue, whom they took to be a daughter of the Mogul. The vessel was laden with treasure.

At this time much trouble and vexation to the East India Company was caused by the interlopers. The Company had obtained their charter, granting them exclusive rights to trade between India and England, and they had certain determined ports where they had their factories. But the trade was so profitable that companies of merchants and private adventurers embarked on the trade in defiance of the rights of the Company. They put into ports within the limits of the Company concessions, but to which the ships of the latter did not resort, by this means undermining and invading the rights of the Company. It was more than that, it was a direct attack on the legal exercise of the privileges of the Company. In 1695 the British Court informed Sir John Gayer and the Presidency of Surat that the expedients which had been adopted for suppressing the interlopers had failed at home and abroad by their not being excluded from foreign markets, and the Company's servants were required to obstruct their sales in foreign markets, and further to take measures against their entering the Indian ports. In 1675-6, the interlopers being disappointed in the sales of their cargoes and in the purchase of Indian produce, determined not to return to Europe without realizing gains for themselves and their employers, and they turned pirates and seized vessels belonging to the native princes, and left the Company's servants exposed to suspicion and imprisonment and their property to seizure and confiscation. It was precisely at this conjuncture that Avery's little piratical fleet made its capture. The vessel, the Gunswek, was bound from Bombay for Daman. Avery cleared it of all its treasure, and only released the pilgrims on payment of a heavy indemnity, and left the ship to be steered back to Bombay by the native crew. As to the ladies on board, Avery took to himself that one whom he supposed to be the daughter of the Great Mogul, and let his crew toss up for the rest as partners.

John Bruce in his Annals of the East India Company says nothing of the retention of the ladies, nor of the capture of the Mogul's daughter. It is likely enough that some women were taken and retained, but certainly no lady of so high a rank as the grand-daughter of Aurungzebe.

This outrage produced very unpleasant effects. Already in September, 1695, an interloping vessel turned pirate, and, bearing English colours, had plundered a ship belonging to Abdul Gopher, a merchant of Surat, and the governor of the place had been obliged to set a guard on the house of the Company to prevent its being wrecked by the enraged natives, and the servants of the Company from being massacred. News now arrived that the same pirate had attacked a ship belonging to the Mogul, conveying pilgrims to Mecca. If the first injury to an individual merchant was resented, this which was deemed a sacrilege roused fanatical resentment to fury, and obliged the Governor to put the President and all the English in irons to prevent their being torn to pieces by the inhabitants.

The Governor desired French, Dutch, and English to send vessels in search of the pirate, that by her capture the fact might be ascertained as to who really was responsible. The French and Dutch hesitated to comply, and the readiness of the English to go on this service served somewhat to abate the hostility entertained against them.

Sir John Gayer, as General of the Company's affairs, wrote to the Mogul to assure him that the Company were not only ignorant of the existence of such a pirate, but were ready to employ two of their ships completely armed to convey the pilgrims to Jedda, if he would grant that all the English but the Company should be debarred from trading in his dominions. The Mogul answered "that the English, French, and Dutch must go to sea in search of the thieves, but that the embargo he had placed on all trade must continue till the innocence or guilt of the English Company was proved."

Mr. Bruce does not name John Avery as the pirate, but this must be the case spoken of in his Life. It will be noticed that the dates do not accord. The capture of the pilgrim vessel took place in the winter of 1693-4, and, according to Johnson, it was not till after the Peace of Ryswick, 10 September, 1697, that Avery made the capture, and it was in consequence of this treaty that he was able to get hold of the vessels. From the date 1693 the pilgrims were annually conveyed to Jedda by ships of the Company, so that Avery could not have captured one of them after that date. Charles Johnson must have blundered in his facts.

The sum demanded by Avery for the release of the pilgrims was three hundred thousand pounds, and he got it.

He had already established himself at Perim, and levied toll on all vessels passing in and out of the Red Sea, but after this affair, when large rewards were offered by the Company and by the British Government for his capture, he deemed it advisable to change his quarters and establish himself in Madagascar.

As the four vessels were steering their course, he sent on board each of the sloops, desiring the captains to come to his vessel and meet in council. They did so, and he told them that he had a proposal to make. The treasure of which they were possessed would not be sufficient for all; they might be separated by bad weather, in which case the sloops, if either of them should fall in with any large armed vessels would be taken or sunk, and the treasure on board lost as well. As for himself, he and the Duchess, his consort, were strong enough to hold their own against any ship they were likely to meet on the high seas, and he proposed, therefore, that all the spoil should be put on board his ship, each chest sealed with three seals, whereof each was to keep one, and to appoint a rendezvous in case of separation. This proposal seemed reasonable and was agreed to, and the treasure was conveyed on board Avery's vessel, and the chests sealed. They kept company that day and the next, the weather being fine; and during this time Avery tampered with his men. "What should hinder us," said he, "from going to some strange country where we are not known, and living on shore all the rest of our days in plenty?" They understood his design, and all agreed to bilk their new allies in the sloops and other vessel. Accordingly they took advantage of the night, changed their course, and next morning the sloops and Duchess found themselves deserted in mid-ocean. Avery and his men resolved to make the best of their way to America, and there change their names, and purchase settlements, and spend the rest of their days at ease.

The first land they made was the island of Providence, then quite recently settled, and there they disposed of their vessel, under the pretence that the Duke had been fitted out as a privateer, but that having met with no success, Avery said that he had received orders from the owners to dispose of her to the best advantage. He soon met with a purchaser, and immediately bought a sloop. In this vessel he and his mates embarked. They touched at several ports, where no one suspected them, and some of the crew went on shore and dispersed about the country, and with the dividends given them by Avery, settled there.

At length he arrived at Boston, in New England, and there again some of the crew left to establish themselves, and no doubt founded there some of the Bostonian families now flourishing. Avery advised those who remained to sail for Ireland. He had concealed and kept for himself a great store of diamonds that had been secured in the ship of the Mogul, and which his present comrades had not known how to value. These he could not dispose of in New England, but hoped to realize in Ireland.

On their voyage they avoided St. George's Channel, and sailing north, put into one of the northern ports. There they disposed of the sloop and separated; some went to Dublin, others to Cork. Some afterwards obtained their pardon from King William.

Avery was afraid to dispose of his diamonds in Ireland, lest inquiry should be made as to how he had come by them. He therefore crossed over to England, to Bideford; and knowing of a man in Bristol who was an old acquaintance, and whom he thought he could trust, he sent to appoint a meeting in Bideford. The man came, and after consultation the friend advised that the jewels should be entrusted to certain Bristol merchants, who being men of wealth and credit, no suspicion would be aroused if they disposed of them. No better plan could be devised, Avery consented, the merchants were communicated with and came to Bideford, where they received the diamonds, undertook to sell them and remit the money to Avery, reserving to themselves a commission; and to this he consented. He now changed his name and took up his residence at Bideford, attracting no notice, but communicating with some of his relations. After a while his money was spent, and not a word reached him from the merchants. He wrote to them, and they sent him a supply of money—not much, doled out from time to time. At last he could endure this no longer, and went to Bristol to see the merchants, who coolly told him that if he troubled them any further they would disclose to the authorities who he was; "so that our merchants were as good pirates on land as he was at sea."

Whether alarmed at their threats, or that he fancied he had been seen and recognized by some old comrades in Bristol, is not known; but he crossed into Ireland, where he remained till destitute. Then in despair he worked his way over before the mast in a trading vessel to Plymouth, and thence made his way on foot to Bideford, where a few days later he fell ill and died without so much money in his pocket as would buy him a coffin.

In the meantime, the companions in the Duchess and the two sloops when deserted by Avery, finding that they were running short of provisions, made their way to Madagascar. On their course they fell in with a privateer sloop, commanded by Captain Tew, who had just captured a large vessel bound from India to Arabia, with three hundred soldiers on board besides seamen. By this prize his men shared £3000 apiece. Tew and the crew of the Duchess and the sloops agreed together to form a settlement in Madagascar. According to (b) the pirates established themselves on the east coast, lat. 15 30', where there was a bay and an island before it.

Probably Antongil Bay is meant. They built a fort, finding the natives divided up into clans under their several chiefs, who were incessantly at war with one another—"So," says Johnson, "they sometimes joyned one sometimes another; but wheresoever they sided, they were sure to be victorious; for the Negroes here had no Fire arms; so that at length these Pirates became so terrible to the Negroes, that if two or three of them were only seen on one Side, when they were going to engage, the opposite Side would fly without striking a Blow. By this means they not only became feared, but powerful; all the Prisoners of War they took to be their slaves; they married the most beautiful of the Negro women, not one or two only but as many as they liked. Their Slaves they employ'd in planting Rice, in Fishing, Hunting, etc. Besides which, they had abundance of others, who lived, as it were, under their protection. Now they began to divide from one another, each living with his own Wives, Slaves and Dependants, like a separate Prince; and, as Power and Plenty naturally beget Contention, they sometimes quarrelled with one another, and attacked each other at the Head of their several Armies. But an Accident happened, which oblig'd them to unite again for their common Safety. They grew wanton in Cruelty, and nothing was more Common than, upon the slightest Displeasure, to cause one of their Dependants to be tied to a tree, and shot thro' the Heart.[2] This occasioned the Negroes to conspire together, to rid themselves of these Destroyers, all in one Night; and as they lived separately, the Thing might easily have been done, had not a Woman, who had been the Wife or Concubine of one of them, run nearly twenty Miles, in three Hours, to discover the Matter to them. Immediately upon the Alarm, they ran together as fast as they could; so that when the Negroes approached them, they found them up in Arms, and retired without making any Attempt. This Escape made them very cautious from that Time."

Thenceforth they fortified their dwellings and converted them into citadels.

"Thus Tyrant-like they lived, fearing and feared by all; and in this situation they were found by Captain Woods Rogers when he went to Madagascar in the Delicia, a ship of forty guns, with a Design of buying Slaves in order to sell them to the Dutch at Batavia or New Holland. He happened to touch upon a part of the Island where no Ship had been seen for seven or eight Years before; here he met with some of the Pyrates, when they had been upon the Island above 25 Years, having a large motly Generation of Children and Grandchildren descended from them, there being, at that Time, eleven of them remaining alive. … Thus he left them as he found them, in a great Deal of dirty State and Royalty, but with fewer Subjects than they had. One of these great Princes had formerly been a Waterman upon the Thames, where having committed a Murder, he fled to the West Indies, and was of the number of those who run away with the Sloops; the rest had been all foremast men, nor was there a Man amongst them, who could either read or write."

Such is Captain Charles Johnson's account. There are several difficulties about accepting his narrative about Avery. From whom could he have obtained the story? Possibly a part of it from the pirates who obtained their pardon from William III, but not as to the end of John Avery.

The story as told in (c) is quite different. According to Adrian van Broeck, Avery did not desert the Consort, the Duchess, nor the sloops, but all together went to Madagascar and settled there. In that settlement, his wife, the daughter of the Mogul, bore him a son, and died of a broken heart.

The second in command was a M. de Sales, who after a while, impatient at being second, organized a revolt among the Frenchmen who were there, captives from a French vessel taken by the pirates. As soon as the watch-bell sounded they were to seize the principal fort, and not spare any man, woman, or child. One of de Sales' crew, named Picard, betrayed the plot to a Cornishman named Richardson, who told it to Avery, and precautions were taken to surround the French on parade, and make all prisoners. Avery had every man impaled who had been engaged in the conspiracy.

Avery was anxious to obtain his pardon, and wrote a letter to Captain Pitt, Governor of Fort St. George, near Madras, which he was to transmit to England, but the East India Company would not present it to the Government.

Avery next attacked and destroyed Fort Ste. Marie of the French East India Company on the north of Madagascar.

Adrian van Broeck managed to make his escape from the settlement on board an East India Company vessel; and with that the narrative abruptly terminates.

The two narratives are irreconcilable, and where the truth lies is impossible to determine. It is conceivable that after van Broeck's visit—if it ever took place—Avery may have made his way to England to dispose of his jewels, but we have no dates in the Dutchman's narrative, and no dates, and no authority quoted by Johnson for his account of the last days of Avery. No reliance whatever can be placed on Defoe's Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery, "the King" in Madagascar, 1720. Consequently the end of Avery remains, and probably will remain, a mystery unsolved. Andrew Brice in his Geographical Dictionary, published in 1759, under the heading of "Madagascar," says: "Pirates have had stations in these Harbours, among whom was Avery, so much talked of 40 or 50 years ago." Had Avery died at Bideford, Brice as a Devonshire man would most likely have heard of it. Salmon, in his Universal Traveller, 1759, says: "What became of Avery himself I could never learn; but it is probable he is dead, or remains concealed in the Island of Madagascar to this time; for he can expect no Mercy from any of the Powers of Europe, if he should fall into their hands, but as to being in such circumstances, as to lay the Foundation of a New State or Kingdom in this Island, this report possibly deserves little Credit. We should have heard more of him after so many years elapsed, if he had made any figure there."

According to Captain Johnson's account, as we have seen, a Captain Wood Rogers of the Delicia, a ship of forty guns, touched at Madagascar with a design of purchasing slaves, and came on the settlement of the crews of the two other vessels, but did not meet with Avery himself.

  1. This play was by Charles Johnson—not the author of the Lives of the Pirates. It was acted at Drury Lane in 1713. John Dennis wrote to the Master of the Revels to expostulate with him for having licensed this play, which he considered as a prostitution of the stage, an encouragement to villainy, and a disgrace to the theatre.
  2. We might be led to suppose that we were reading of the proceedings of the Belgians in the Congo Free State.