Newton Ferrers, Devonshire
August 20, 1659
Sometime around the year 1670, a young man from Devon in the West Country of England joined the Royal Navy. Given that he would spent the rest of his adult life on the water, it is possible that he willingly volunteered for service. There were economic advantages to volunteering: the navy offered two months' salary in advance, though it was expected that the new recruit would spend some of those funds purchasing equipment (including the hammock they would sleep in on board). New volunteers were also protected from creditors if they owed less than £20. But roughly half the sailors in the Royal Navy had been forced into service thanks to one of the most notorious institutions of the period: the impress service.
To be a young man in England in the seventeenth century-particularly a young man of limited means-was to live with a constant background fear of the impress service, roving bands of informal agents for the Royal Navy known colloquially as "press-gangs." Impressment was a kind of hybrid of the modern military draft and state-sponsored kidnapping. A seventeen-year-old could be standing on a street corner, minding his own business, and out of nowhere a press-gang could swoop in and make him a Godfather-style offer he couldn't refuse: he could voluntarily join the navy, or he could be forced into service under worse terms. The choice was his to make-as long as it ended up with him on a Royal Navy ship.
Newly impressed sailors confronted a grim reality once they had been loaded onto the guard ships where the men were held until they could be assigned to a specific ship. An eighteenth-century tract called The Sailors Advocate described the scene: "They found seldom less aboard the Guard-ship, than six, seven, or eight hundred at a time in the same condition that they were in, without common conveniences, being all forced to lie between decks, confined as before, and to eat what they could get, having seldom victuals enough dressed, which occasioned distempers, that sometimes six, eight, and ten, died a day; and some were drowned in attempting their escape, by swimming from the Guard-ship; many of whose bodies were seen floating upon the River. . . ."
Impressment arose in part because the age of exploration created a demand for labor at sea that could not be met through normal financial incentives. But it also arose because of changes on land. The shift from late feudalism to early agrarian capitalism, the great disruption that would fuel the growth of the metropolitan centers in the coming centuries, had disgorged a whole class of society-small, commons-based cottage laborers-and turned them into itinerant free agents. By the late 1500s, the explosion of vagabonds made them public enemy number one, triggering one of the first true moral panics of the post-Gutenberg era. Everywhere there were wanderers, whole families lost in the changing economic landscape. Serfs once grounded in a coherent, if oppressive, feudal system found themselves flotsam on the twisting stream of early capitalism. To everyone sitting on the banks above that stream, the change must have seemed something like the modern fantasies of zombie invasions: you wake up one day and realize that the streets are filled with people who not only lack homes, but also suffer from some other, more existential form of homelessness-not even knowing what kind of home they should be seeking.
In 1597 Parliament passed a vagrancy act that attempted to combat the scourge of homelessness. The language of the act includes an almost comical catalog of the various species of vagabonds currently at large on the public roads and in the town squares of England:
Wandering scholars seeking alms; shipwrecked seamen, idle persons using subtle craft in games or in fortune telling; pretended proctors, procurers, or gatherers of alms for institutions; fencers, bear wards, common players, or minstrels; jugglers, tinkers, peddlers and petty chapmen; able-bodied wandering persons and laborers refusing to work for current rate of wages; discharged pensioners; wanderers pretending losses by fire; Egyptians or gypsies.
The Vagabond Act had a clear message to local authorities: any of these characters were to be "stripped naked from the middle upwards and openly whipped until his or her body be bloody, and then passed to his or her birthplace or last residence." But the act also empowered the press-gangs. If the wandering scholars and jugglers didn't want to be stripped naked and openly whipped, they could always join the Royal Navy. What better way to clear the streets of the refugees from a fallen feudal order than to send them off to sea?
Whether he joined the Royal Navy on his own accord or was forced into service by the press-gangs, the Devonshire sailor would have grown up in a culture that was heavily shaped by stories of seafaring life. No region of Britain is more closely associated with maritime adventure than the West Country, the rugged moorlands that jut out into the Atlantic, wedged between the English and Bristol Channels. Almost all the legendary sea dogs of the Elizabethan age hailed from the region. Both Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake were born in Devon. While the West Country mariners led many naval battles on behalf of the Crown-including the sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588-many of them also crossed over into piracy. (The two most notorious pirates of the 1700s-"Black Sam" Bellamy and Blackbeard-were also West Country natives.) The prominence of the swashbuckling lifestyle had geological roots: the West Country's position at the mouth of the English Channel gave its captains unrivaled access to the shipping networks of Europe, and the many coves and inlets carved into the coastline made the landscape ideal for smugglers. The link between piracy and Devonshire lives on in our speech patterns more than three hundred years after that Devonshire boy first joined the navy. When we adopt a stereotypical pirate accent today-"Arr, shiver me timbers"-we are, unconsciously, mimicking the lilt and idiosyncratic grammar of West Country-vernacular English.
The mystery that surrounds the life of the Devonshire sailor begins with his name. The first biographical account of his exploits, published in 1709, referred to him as Captain John Avery. As a young man, he seems to have briefly adopted the alias of Benjamin Bridgeman, though his nickname, "Long Ben," has led some historians to speculate that Bridgeman was his original name and Avery the alias. Most scholars agree that he was born near Plymouth, in Devonshire, on the southwest coast of England. An acquaintance would testify under oath in 1696 that the sailor was a man of about forty years of age, dating his birth back to the late 1650s. Parish records in Newton Ferrers, a village on the River Yealm southeast of Plymouth, note the birth of a child to John and Anne Avery on August 20, 1659. Perhaps that child grew up to be the notorious Henry Avery, the most wanted criminal on earth. Or perhaps the real Avery was born in another West Country village in that same period. In part because a family by the name of Every had been prominent landowners in Devonshire for centuries before his birth, many accounts of his life refer to him as Henry Every. Almost every legal document written in English that would eventually mention his name spelled it "Every," and the one piece of his correspondence that survives was signed "Henry Every." Every was the name most often invoked by the public after he became one of the most notorious men in the world. For that reason alone, it seems appropriate to call him Henry Every.
Almost nothing is known about Henry Every's childhood. A memoir published in 1720 keeps his early years heavily veiled: "In the present Account, I have taken no Notice of my Birth, Infancy, Youth, or any of that Part; which, as it was the most useless Part of my Years to myself so 'tis the most useless to any one that shall read this Work to know, being altogether barren of any Thing remarkable in it self, or instructing to others." Given that this memoir was almost certainly a sham-some believe it was, in fact, the work of Daniel Defoe-the omission of childhood details most likely reflects how barren the historical record was, and not the uselessness of Every's actual upbringing.
No doubt young Henry Every (or Avery or Bridgeman) grew up hearing folk tales about the globetrotting exploits of Drake and Raleigh, both of whom skirted the line that separated pirate from privateer in their careers at sea. (As we will see, the legal conventions of the period kept that line deliberately blurry.) The faux memoirs claim that his father had served in the Royal Navy as a trading captain; the Devonshire Every clan included at least a few captains in their family tree. Whatever the details, Every seems to have been, as he puts it in the fictional memoirs, "bred to the Sea from a Youth." Appropriately enough, the first real biographical detail we have of Every's life-beyond those parish records in Newton Ferrers-is that he joined the Royal Navy, likely as a teenager.
The fog around the birth of that Devonshire sailor is almost as thick as the one that surrounds his death. The truth is we don't really know when or where he was born, or even what his name actually was. It is fitting that there should be a certain blurriness to Henry Every's roots. All the great legends have palimpsest narratives of their origins, different plots layered and threaded together through rumor and hearsay and the subtle transformations that befall any story passed down from generation to generation. For a time, Henry Every was a legend as widely known as any in the pantheon, a hero and inspiration to some, a ruthless killer to others. He was a mutineer, a working class hero, an enemy of the state, and a pirate king.
And then he became a ghost.
The Uses of Terror
The Nile Delta
To modern eyes, the hieroglyphs that line the external northwest wall of Medinet Habu, the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, are inscrutable, written in a language that only a small group of Egyptologists can now read. But the images etched in bas-relief on the temple walls are easily deciphered. They depict a scene of terrible carnage: warriors carrying javelins and daggers, fortified by shields and Aegean armor, fending off a shower of arrows; an officer wearing Egyptian headgear a split second away from decapitating a fallen enemy; a bloodied mound of corpses signaling the total annihilation of the invading forces. The images-and the hieroglyphs beside them-tell the story of one of the ancient world's largest naval battles, the clash between Egyptian forces and a band of itinerant raiders known today as the Sea Peoples. Because it left behind archaeological wonders like the temple of Ramses III and the pyramids, not to mention the treasures of Tutankhamun, the Egyptian dynasty to which Ramses III belonged has long held a vivid place in our historical imagination. Every grade-schooler can tell you something about the pharaohs. The Sea Peoples did not attract the same legacy, largely because they spent most of their prime living an entirely nautical existence. They did not leave temples or monuments behind to astound tourists three thousand years after their demise. They did not pioneer new forms of agriculture, or compose philosophical tracts. They left no written records at all. But the Sea Peoples should loom larger in the modern memory of the ancient world for one reason. They were the first pirates.
The geographic origins of the Sea Peoples remain a matter of debate among historians. The prevailing theory is that the Sea Peoples were a collection of refugees from Mycenaean Greece who first took shape as a coherent cultural group at the end of the Bronze Age. Some of them were warriors and mercenaries, others ordinary laborers who had previously been employed at borderline slave wages building the immense infrastructure and fortifications that marked the heyday of the Mycenaean age: the network of roads in the Peloponnese or the deepwater harbor at Pylos. Their origins are necessarily murky because the Sea Peoples ultimately became, like so many pirate communities since, a multiethnic group, defined not by their allegiance to a single city-state or emperor, but rather by their own elective allegiance to the floating community they had formed. Their homeland was the Mediterranean, and the ships they sailed upon it. They built customs and codes that helped define their tribal identity: they sported distinctive horned helmets-clearly visible in the Ramses III engravings-and their ships were adorned with figureheads of birds. But what made them so unusual was their rootlessness, both in the sense of leaving behind their geographic homelands and of being perpetually in motion, never stopping long enough to put down roots.
That rootlessness implied a political stance, one that would be adopted by the most radical of pirates in the centuries to come. The Sea Peoples did not respect the authority of the existing land-based regimes that surrounded the Mediterranean. They were not bound by the laws of terrestrial states. This is one of the key ways in which the Sea Peoples mark the point of origin for piracy as a form of self-identity. Before the Sea Peoples, there were no doubt acts of piracy committed on the open sea; as soon as human beings began transporting valuable goods via ship, you can be sure there were criminals scheming to intercept those vessels and run off with the loot. But a true pirate is not just a subclass of criminal like a bank robber or a petty thief. Most people we consider to be criminals are people who break the law deliberately, but who still, in other aspects of their lives, acknowledge the rule of law. They get driver's licenses, and pay taxes, and vote. They consider themselves citizens, just not entirely law-abiding ones. To be a true pirate implies a broader disavowal. The pirate renounces the long-distance authorities of nations and empires. This is why the pirate flags that every grade-schooler can recognize today-centuries after they were last flown in earnest-carried so much symbolic heft. The pirate sails beneath the colors of his or her own rogue state, "reckless wanderers of the sea," as Homer described them in The Odyssey, "who live to prey on other men."
Not all pirates were willing to make such a complete break with their national allegiances, of course. (The tension between open rebellion and patriotic loyalty would shape many of the events in Henry Every's brief career as a pirate.) But the pirates' willingness to challenge the legal and geographic boundaries of state power-not to mention their fondness for pillaging-made them frequent enemies of centralized authority. Nimble, unburdened by legal or moral restraints or by state bureaucracies, the pirates had many advantages over their larger antagonists. But they were not invulnerable to a concerted effort by a centralized government to defeat them. In 1179 BCE, the Sea Peoples launched an attack on Ramses's forces in the Nile Delta. Anticipating their attack, the pharaoh had constructed ships designed specifically to combat the Sea Peoples' naval advantage. He set up a network of scouts to watch for invading ships, and anchored his new fleet just out of sight in the many channels feeding the delta. The drawings at Medinet Habu show the Sea Peoples without oars in their galleys, suggesting that they were ambushed. The scenes bring to mind the storming of the beaches at Normandy: a scattered mass of boats washing ashore and men scrambling off into the waves, only to be picked off by distant Egyptian archers. Many bled to death in the shallow water.