Asian and African studies blog

10 March 2013

The highjacking of the Ganj-i Sawa始i

A major diplomatic incident in 1695

Piracy and highjackings have been in the news recently, but in Mughal times they were such a problem that they several times brought about a complete breakdown in relations between the Mughals and the European countries.

During the 17th century, Surat was the most important port in Western India. It was a major trading centre and also the embarkation point for an estimated 15,000 pilgrims per year (see Hajj, below), travelling to the ports of Mocha and Jeddah on their way to Mecca. As early as 1613 Portuguese traders had siezed the Queen Mother Maryam Makani鈥檚 flagship Rahimi, carrying off her entire cargo and approximately 700 passengers to Goa (see Findley below). The resulting deterioration in Jahangir鈥檚 relationship with Portugal opened a window of opportunity for Sir Thomas Roe鈥檚 mission of 1615-18.

Acts of piracy continued in the years that followed, culminating in 1695 with the self-styled 鈥楥aptain鈥 Avery鈥檚 capture of the Ganj-i Sawa鈥檌, the largest of the Mughal ships, on its voyage home to Surat. This incident is described in some detail in the Persian Muntakhab al-lub膩b by a contemporary historian Kh膩f墨 Kh膩n who had several acquaintances on board. The ship was carrying fifty-two lacs of rupees in gold coins, the revenue from the sale of Indian goods at Mocha and Jedda. Despite having eighty cannon and four hundred muskets, it was captured and boarded by pirates (Moinul Haq鈥檚 translation, see below, pp. 419-25):

The whole of the ship came under their control and they carried away all the gold and silver along with a large number of prisoners to their ship. When their ship became over-loaded, they brought the imperial ship to the sea-coast near one of their settlements. After having remained engaged for a week, in searching for plunder, stripping the men of their clothes and dishonouring the old and young women, they left the ship and its passengers to their fate. Some of the women getting an opportunity, threw themselves into the sea to save their honour while others committed suicide using knives and daggers.

Add.6574_f168_720Kh膩f墨 Kh膩n鈥檚 account of the capture of the Ganj-i Sawa始i. This copy beloged formerly to James Grant (1750鈥1808), the East India Company鈥檚 sarishtahdar  (鈥榓ccount-keeper鈥), who had it copied in 1782 from a copy in the library of the late 峁m峁D乵 al-Mulk Sh膩hnav膩z Kh膩n (d.1781), minister of Nizam ul-Mulk in Haidarabad and editor of the famous biographical dictionary Ma驶膩sir al-umar膩始 (Add.6574, f.168)

Avery鈥檚 act seriously jeopardised the East India Company鈥檚 trading activities. A huge reward was offered for his capture but he was never tracked down. The emperor Aurangzeb, on his part, retaliated by imprisoning the English traders at the East India Company factory in Surat and threatened a siege of Bombay. Kh膩f墨 Kh膩n recounts the occasion when, during the hostilities, he was transporting goods from Surat to Rahiri (Raigarh) and had an interview with the governor of Bombay Sir John Gayer.

鈥he discourse turned upon different topics, pleasant and unpleasant, bitter and sweet; questions and answers were made. Of these questions one was about the cause of the arrest of his agents. Trusting that God and His Prophet would protect me, I said in answer: 鈥淵ou do not take upon yourself the responsibility of the shameful deeds committed by your men, which are condemned by all sensible men鈥.

Despite assurances that the pirates, though English, were nothing to do with the East India Company, Kh膩f墨 Kh膩n reflected:

The revenue of the island of Bombay most of which is derived from betel-nuts and cocoa-nuts, does not amount to more than two or three lakhs of rupees. It is reported that the entire amount of trade of that wicked fellow [the Governor of Bombay] is not more than twenty lakhs of rupees. The source of the remaining unstable income of the English is the plunder and capture of the ships going to the House of God. At intervals of one or two years, they attack these ships, not at the time when, loaded with grains, they proceed to Mukhkhah and Jeddah, but when they return, bringing gold, silver, Ibr膩h墨mis and riy膩ls [non-Mughal currencies].

Henry Avery and his legacy

Born in the West Country, Henry Avery (or Every, also known as John Avery and 鈥楲ong Ben鈥) was recruited as first mate on a ship which he highjacked and sailed to Madagascar. There he recruited a larger crew and embarked on a successful though short-lived career of piracy. After the capture of Ganj-i Sawai, Avery and his men sailed to the West Indies where they went their separate ways. Several crew members were caught and hanged but Avery was never heard of again.

Capt Avery_720From A General and True History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers etc., originally published in 1724 (this edition: Birmingham: R. Walker, 1742). The author, Captain Charles Johnson, has been identified with Daniel Defoe (c1660-1731)

Meanwhile Avery became a household name in 18th and 19th century Britain, synonymous with the spirit of adventure and life at sea. Numerous fictional and semi-biographical accounts of his life were published: The Ballad of Long Ben and The King of Pirates by Daniel Defoe, to mention just a few. In the earliest, The life and adventures of Capt. John Avery written by a pseudonymous Adrian van Broeck and published in 1709 (see below), Captain Avery seized not only Ganj-i Sawai鈥檚 treasure but the Emperor Aurangzeb鈥檚 granddaughter who happened to be on board. They married and sailed away to Madagascar where they lived happily (almost) ever after:

As time obliterates the most deep impressions of sorrow, so the lady was not long before she forgot the pleasures of her grandfather鈥檚 court, in the joys of her own, and found herself happily brought to bed of a son...while the female part of her retinue were no less backward in presenting their husbands with the fruits of their conjugal endearments.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

Further reading

Ellison B. Findly, 鈥淭he Capture of Maryam-uz-Zam膩n墨鈥檚 Ship: Mughal Women and European Traders鈥, Journal of the American Oriental Society 108/2 (1988), pp. 227-38
Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam,
ed. Venetia Porter. London: British Museum Press, 2012, p.169
S. Moinul Haq, Khafi Khan鈥檚 History of 驶Alamgir. Karachi: Pakistan Historical Society, 1975
Adrian van Broeck, The life and adventures of Capt. John Avery, the famous English pirate... Written by a person who made his escape from thence, and faithfully extracted from his journal. London: J. Baker, [1709]. Available online in Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)







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