These pirates left the Caribbean behind—and stole the biggest booty ever
Published March 7, 2023
8 min read
European pirates cruised the coasts of North America, western Africa, and South America during the so-called golden age of piracy, the period of heightened piratical activity in the Atlantic Ocean between 1650 and 1730. And many pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd rose to notoriety in part due to their Caribbean exploits during that time. But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, some pirates shifted their geographical focus to the Indian Ocean, along Africa’s eastern coast, lured by treasure-laden ships carrying gold, silver, and gems. Their malevolent deeds created a less famous focus of piracy’s golden era, which continues to some extent today. Who were these pirates and how exactly did this lesser known aspect of piracy transpire?
(Where did pirates spend their booty?)
The allure of wealth
By the 1690s, the Indian Ocean teemed with merchant vessels that routinely carried valuable cargoes. Convoys frequently transported wealthy Muslim pilgrims and luxury goods like silks and spices between the Mughal Empire (including present-day India) and Mecca. There were also the treasures carried by the East India Companies of England, France, and the Netherlands; ships headed east transported cash to finance operations in the region, while those returning west contained fine silks, jewels, and spices they had accumulated. The most coveted treasure ships, though, belonged to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled his South Asian empire between 1658 until his death in 1707.
(Pirates once swashbuckled across the ancient Mediterranean.)
Pirates eyed these prospects of enormous wealth—gold, silver, and gems were much more profitable than the Caribbean’s timber, rum, and cloth—and flocked east in droves.
Arrival at St. Mary’s
As pirates arrived, they needed a safe harbor to refit their ships and escape storms, as well as a place to enjoy their loot. That place became Madagascar, 250 miles off the African coast, with St. Mary’s Island off its remote northeast coast being the most famous stronghold. The Indigenous Malagasy had until then successfully warded off Europeans eyeing the island’s strategic location along major shipping channels between Europe and Asia.
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Then along came English “trader” Adam Baldridge. Wanted for murder in British Jamaica, he fled to St. Mary’s Island, subdued the locals (no doubt through vicious means), and set up a pirate haven in 1691. He established an illicit business with a New York merchant in which he traded pirates’ booty for European wares such as tobacco and food, providing a thriving economic network to support the pirates’ way of life.
Baldridge built an incredibly fortified bastion on St. Mary’s, which allowed more than a thousand pirates hide out there in the 1690s, enjoying the good life of rum, women, and safety in between looting raids.
Pirate success stories
Two of most successful European pirates in the Indian Ocean were the English pirate John Taylor and his French counterpart, Olivier Levasseur, also known as La Buse, who worked together in 1721 to attack the Nossa Senhora de Cabo. The ship, carrying important passengers including the archbishop of Goa and count of Ericeira, Viceroy of Portuguese India—along with diamonds valued at 500,000 British pounds and rare Asian silks and porcelain worth 375,000 British pounds—had been damaged at sea and was docked at the East African island of Reunion for repairs. The men easily seized the vessel and made away with booty worth more than 900,000 British pounds. Tales like this encouraged pirates to troll the Indian Ocean, looking for vessels to plunder.
Another hugely successful pirate was Henry Avery. The Englishman got his start as a member of a merchant ship before becoming first mate on the privateering ship Charles II, employed by the king of Spain. Aboard the Charles II, Avery convinced the other men to commit mutiny and make away with the ship. The mutiny was met with great success, after which Avery indicated he was turning to piracy: “I am bound to Madagascar, with a Design of making my own Fortune,” he stated. He renamed the ship Fancy, customized it to be speedier under sail, and headed east. Known as the king of the pirates, Avery operated for only a couple of years, though he spearheaded perhaps piracy’s most lucrative raid.
(Pirate portrayals—from Blackbeard to Captain Kidd—are more fantasy than fact.)
An ill-conceived pirate plot
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A map from ca. 1572 shows a panoramic view of the port at Calicut (today known as Kozikhode).
Illustration via Buyenlarge Archive, UIG / Bridgeman Images
Not all fortune-seeking pirates in the Indian Ocean, however, were victorious. Take Dutch pirate Dirk Chivers, for example. He is infamous for holding four ships hostage in the harbor at Calicut, Kerala, in southern India. He demanded 10,000 British pounds from the Indian governor and East India Company, who countered with 5,000 British pounds. Offended by the offer, Chivers raised the “bloody colors”—a red flag that meant certain death. He set one of the hostage ships on fire, and a compromise was offered, 40,000 rupees. This time, Chivers agreed to take it, but when the money failed to show, he burned a second ship.
What Chivers failed to realize was that the Indian government and the East India Company were working on another plot. They had messaged pirates in India to attack Chivers and his men, which forced them to flee the harbor. They’d have to find their riches elsewhere.
Piracy’s greatest heist
In July 1695, word spread that the Grand Mughal of India’s treasure fleet was returning from its annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Henry Avery joined forces with other pirates, including Thomas Tew, a Rhode Islander privateer-turned-pirate. They waited several weeks before their big prizes approached: the Fateh Muhammed and the Ganj-i-Sawai. The pirates first attacked the Fateh Muhammed, the flagship’s escort. There wasn’t much of a fight, and the pirates hauled 50,000 to 60,000 British pounds—but the pirates wanted more. Avery then went after the flagship, the mighty Ganj-i-Sawai, equipped with 62 cannon and hundreds of musketeers. A bloody battle ensued, with the frightened captain finally seeking cover below decks and the remaining Indians surrendering. The haul from the Ganj-i-Sawai was hundreds of thousands of pounds in gold, silver, and jewels, worth tens of millions of dollars today—perhaps piracy’s richest haul ever.
Alas, it didn’t turn out very well for Tew and his crew. Tew died during the battle for the ships, and Avery refused to share more than just a small amount of the plunder with the other pirates. Such was the pirate’s life.
End of an era
By the end of the 18th century, as Europeans began colonizing throughout the Indian Ocean region, the area became difficult for pirates to operate in, but they never truly disappeared. Examples of piracy in the Indian Ocean exist well into the 21st century, particularly off the coast of Somalia.
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Portions of this work have previously appeared in Pirates by Jamie L. H. Goodall. Copyright © 2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.