Looting Royal Pilgrims
Updated: Jan 13
We Indians can be very selective about our history, glorifying that which we admire, amnesiac about that which we don’t and liberally distorting where it suits our religious or nationalist sentiments.
What I narrate here is a tale of an unfortunate Indian Muslim woman, a Mughal princess returning from Hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah) by sea, who along with her entourage and fellow passengers, was captured by English pirates in the Arabian Sea and who could not be avenged by her grandfather, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.
At that time, the Mughal Empire was one of the richest in the world. Every seafaring European nation had established trading relations with India, dotting its shoreline with storage and processing facilities, which they called ‘factories’. No European country could afford to earn the wrath of the Emperor, as his displeasure would have wrecked their economies, cause massive loss of jobs and put a huge dent in their exchequer. As previously witnessed in the episode of Child’s war, the Arabs of the Hijaz region viewed the Indian Muslims much as the latter look upon the former today.
The Sharifs of Makkah depended on the largesse of Indian Muslims for running the affairs of the two Holy Sites and keenly awaited the arrival of the rich, philanthropist contingent of royal Indians for the annual Hajj in the hope of receiving presents, gifts and handouts.
Mughal emperors from Akbar to Aurangzeb lavished hundreds of thousands of rupees – millions of dollars today, thousands of khilats (robes of honour) and expensive gifts on the rulers and people of the two holy cities.
But the majesty and splendour of the Mughals on land was compensated in equal measure by their impotence on the oceans, where first the Portuguese; then the Dutch and the French; and finally the British held complete unchallenged hegemony.
The Portuguese and the Mughals arrived in India almost simultaneously, the former landing on coasts from the west and the latter on land from the northwest. The tragedy that a rogue British naval-captain-turned-pirate would wreak upon a helpless granddaughter of Emperor Aurangzeb in the 17th century had been foretold in the conduct of Vasco da Gama in 1502, during his second visit to India. He discovered the sea route to India in his first voyage in 1498, when he mercilessly burned and sank a Muslim ship off the coast of Calicut, killing all 500 pilgrims on board. He carried out this wanton act of retribution as a punishment to the local ruler and people of Calicut for the murder of 70 of his countrymen during an earlier trading visit by the Portuguese in 1500.
Henceforth the Arabs, who had dominated the trade around the Indian Ocean since Roman times, were to surrender this monopoly forever to the technologically advanced and militarily strong Europeans. Portugal quickly prohibited all shipping in the Arabian Sea that didn’t carry their cartaz – a letter of permission.
At this time, the future Emperor Babar, still a mere 15 years old, was embroiled in conflict with other warlords for a kingdom to rule in Fergana, Transoxiana. He was still far from abandoning this cherished quest for a fortune in India.
The difficulty of implementing law over the oceans gave rise to piracy. Many of the great English sea captains including Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake actually alternated between the role of commissioned naval commanders and pirates as they preyed upon Spanish colonies and ships. This suited British national interests and the pirates (known officially as ‘privateers’) were, therefore, seen as assets.
However, rogue pirates like the one whose acts are being recalled here, who worked against the interests of the Crown were pursued, apprehended, tried and punished. Piracy, when prosecuted, could lead you to face the death penalty.
In the fifteenth century, there was a general consensus in Europe that India and China -generally referred to as “the Indies” – were fabulously rich countries. With the Ottomans holding firm in the Balkans, Anatolia and the Mediterranean, the trading nations of Europe were finding it difficult to import silk and spices from Asia. Their advances in science and technology due to the liberating forces of the Renaissance, coupled with an adventurous streak, allowed them to embark upon the conquest of oceans and set them upon the path to finding a sea route to India that ultimately led to the voyage of Vasco da Gama.
The Indians fought valiantly, but they were no match for the better experienced and equipped Europeans.
By the end of the sixteenth century, Portuguese influence had waned and England had become the leading naval power and her annual trade through the East India Company had gone up to hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling, with several ‘factories’ established all around the coast. The rich directors and shareholders of the company had bought political influence and become members of the House of Commons, in turn protecting and enhancing the influence of the Company. The children of British officials and traders were later to rise to high offices, including that of Prime Minister.
This profitable cycle was suddenly endangered by the wanton acts of rape and plunder by the renegade Henry Avery; leading a six-ship pirate flotilla carrying 400 pirates, mostly from Britain but including sailors from a number of European countries.
Henry Avery was one of the most notorious pirates of his time. His career as a pirate lasted only two years but he was one of the few captains to retire with his loot without being apprehended or killed. He has been dubbed the ‘King of Pirates’. His act of piracy against the Mughal pilgrimage ship is regarded as one of the most atrocious and profitable heists in history.
Avery initially served in the Royal Navy, as many of the pirates and privateers of the time did.
He participated in naval battles against the French and after his discharge from the Navy he became an illegal slave trader. He later joined a Spanish naval ship to fight against the French.
When the Spanish government failed to pay the crew, they mutinied, elected Avery as their captain, changed the name of the ship to the Fancy and proceeded around the Cape of Good Hope looking for trading ships to loot. Having plundered many European ships en route, he now proceeded to the Arabian Sea to target ships carrying Muslim pilgrims.
Meanwhile, Emperor Aurangzeb had assumed power in 1658 and, for the first time in Mughal history, expanded his empire deep into South India. At its zenith, his empire had spread over 3.2 million square kilometres and he ruled over 100-150 million subjects with a revenue of some £38.6 million. He was the most orthodox of the Mughal Emperors and particularly lavish about the Hajj. He sponsored two ships every year carrying lords and ladies to Makkah, including a number of nobles and women of the harem, who carried jewels and gold with them.
Avery with his pirate fleet waited at the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, the narrow neck joining the Red and the Arabian seas between modern-day Yemen and Djibouti, waiting for the Hajj ships to pass. In 1695, the Mughal naval convoy was unusually large. It consisted of 25 trading and pilgrimage ships including the flagship, the court-owned Ganj-e-Sawai (meaning ‘Exceeding Treasure’) and dubbed as the ‘Gunsway’ in the British records – and the escort Fateh Muhammad, belonging to one Abdul Ghaffar, reportedly the wealthiest merchant in Surat. Jan Rogozinski writes in his book on Piracy in the Indian Ocean that Ghaffar was so powerful and wealthy that one associate described him as follows: “Abdul Ghafur, a Mahometan that I was acquainted with, drove a trade equal to the English East-India Company, for I have known him to fit out in a year, above twenty sail of ships, between 300 and 800 tons.”
The royal flagship was a formidable 1600-ton behemoth, commanded by Muhammad Ibrahim, equipped with 80 guns and loaded with treasure of gold and jewels. It carried an armed guard of 400 musketeers and 600 passengers, including a daughter or a granddaughter – or perhaps a senior royal relative – of the Mughal Emperor along with her maids and companions.
Initially, the convoy was able to elude the pirates and head for Surat. The pirates, who had sighted the convoy, gave chase that continued for four or five days until they were able to close in on two stragglers, the Ganj-e-Sawai and its escort, the Fateh Muhammad. Though the Indians fought valiantly, they were no match for the far better experienced and equipped Europeans.
Fateh Muhammad was first attacked by the pirate ship Amity, commanded by Captain Thomas Tew, a notorious English pirate who had vast experience of operating in these waters. In the battle, Tew was shot in the stomach by a broadside from the Mughal ship and was mortally wounded. The Indian musket-bearing soldiers captured the Amity and took the crew as prisoners. The battle, however, weakened the resolve of the crew of the Mughal escort ship, who were perhaps awed by the pursuing 46-gun Fancy. Avery was able to overcome resistance and board easily. He recovered the imprisoned pirates and looted the ship. The total haul from the Fateh was £50,000 to £60,000 – $30 million in modern currency, sufficient to buy the Fancy fifty times over.
Having looted his first prey, the pirates now gave chase to the far bigger Mughal flagship and caught up with it about eight days out of Surat. Avery’s opening lucky broadside hit Ganj-e-Sawai’s main mast and broke it. Unable to draw away or manoeuvre, it became an easy target for the far more agile pirate ships. The pirates drew alongside. Joel Baer writes in his book Pirates of the British Isles that for a moment, a volley of Indian musket fire prevented the pirates from clambering aboard, but one of the Ganj-e-Sawai’s powerful cannons exploded, instantly killing many and demoralising the Indian crew, who ran below deck or fought to put out the spreading fires. Avery’s men took advantage of the confusion, quickly scaling the Ganj-e-Sawai’s steep sides. Peter Earle confirms in his book The Pirate Wars that “A ferocious hand-to-hand battle now ensued, lasting two to three hours”, in which the pirates prevailed and subdued the ship’s defences.
The details of the treatment of the ship's crew and passengers have been well preserved in contemporary records. An account has been written by one Muhammad Hashim Khafi Khan, who was present in Surat at the time and his narrative is based on the account of eyewitnesses. According to Khafi Khan, on seeing the pirates on board, the captain Ibrahim ran below deck, armed the slave girls and sent them to the upper deck to fight the pirates. The crew and guard of the ship
gave up resistance early. Some of the armed guards did put up some disorganised resistance, killing several of Avery’s men. However, after hours of leaderless struggle, the Indian resistance collapsed and the pirates took over the ship.
The loot from the Ganj-e-Sawai, the greatest ship in the Indian Fleet totalled somewhere between £300,000 and £600,000, including 500,000 gold and silver pieces, which in current value amounts to somewhere from $200 million to $400 million.
All told, it may have been the richest ship ever taken by pirates, making Avery the richest pirate in the world. When the loot was distributed, every pirate crew member received £1000 or about £100,000 in contemporary currency. On top of this, each man received an additional share of gemstones. As Avery had promised, his men now found themselves glutted with “gold enough to dazzle the eyes.” Rogozinski estimates that “only two or three times in history did criminals take more valuable loot”.
Avery and his men didn’t end the ship's agony with stealing its wealth. They next turned their attention to the passengers and especially the women on board. According to Khafi Khan, the victorious pirates subjected their captives to an orgy of horror that lasted several days, raping and killing their terrified prisoners deck by deck. The pirates reportedly utilised torture to extract information from their prisoners, who had hidden the treasure in the ship’s holds. Some of the Muslim women apparently committed suicide to avoid violation, while those women who didn’t kill themselves or die from the pirates’ brutality were taken aboard the Fancy for the pleasure of the other pirates.
The depositions by those of Avery’s men who were arrested and tried provide vivid details about these atrocities. In his book Pirates of the Eastern Seas, author Charles Grey quotes the pirate John Sparkes testifying in his
‘Last Dying Words and Confession’ that the “inhuman treatment and merciless tortures inflicted on the poor Indians and their women still affected his soul,” and that, while apparently unremorseful for his acts of piracy which were of “lesser concern,”
he was nevertheless repentant for the “horrid barbarities he had committed, though only on the bodies of the heathen.”