The Padishah’s painful realisation

Parvez Mahmood on how the fact of European primacy at sea was brought home to Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in a horrific manner

The Padishah’s painful realisation
We Pakistanis 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. This tale needs to be told, in my view, in juxtaposition with another tale that we are very fond of narrating - that of a wailing woman off the coast of Debal, Sindh who was ‘avenged’ by Arab armies under the command of a young Muhammad bin Qasim.

It was the month of September, three-and-a-quarter centuries ago, in the year 1695. The Mughal Empire was at its zenith. For the first time in history, the whole of the Indian Subcontinent had been brought under one unified rule by Aurangzeb, who held sway over his vast domains from his newly established capital of Aurangabad, now in the Indian province of Gujarat.

Aurangzeb ruled over one of the largest land empires ever seen in South Asia
Aurangzeb ruled over one of the largest land empires ever seen in South Asia

The Portuguese and the Mughals arrived in India almost simultaneously

The ship that was attacked operated from the nearby port of Surat.

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, caused massive loss of jobs and put a huge dent in their exchequer. 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 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 landed on coasts from the west and the latter on land from northwest. The tragedy and imperial sacrilege 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.

Avery's pirate ships in combat with the Mughal treasure fleet
Avery's pirate ships in combat with the Mughal treasure fleet

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.

An early 20th-century depiction of Captain Avery's encounter with a noblewoman, possibly Emperor Aurangzeb's granddaughter
An early 20th-century depiction of Captain Avery's encounter with a noblewoman, possibly Emperor Aurangzeb's granddaughter

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.

English pirate captain Henry Avery
English pirate captain Henry Avery

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.

The battle of Buxar, 1764, was the conclusion of many decades of Mughal stagnation relative to the more enterprising European nations
The battle of Buxar, 1764, was the conclusion of many decades of Mughal stagnation relative to the more enterprising European nations

Rogozi?ski estimates that "only two or three times in history did criminals take more valuable loot"

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 Rogozi?ski 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.

The European voyages of discovery of the late 15th century, led by men like Vasco da Gama (pictured) were driven by a desire for greater trade, primarily with South Asia
The European voyages of discovery of the late 15th century, led by men like Vasco da Gama (pictured) were driven by a desire for greater trade, primarily with South Asia

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 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 Muslim 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.” Rogozi?ski estimates that “only two or three times in history did criminals take more valuable loot”.

Avery and his men didn’t end ship’s agony with stealing its wealth. They next turned their attention to the passengers and specially 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.” According to the book, pirate Philip Middleton testified that several of the Indian men were murdered, while they also “put several to the torture” and Avery’s men “lay with the women aboard, and there were several that, from their jewels and habits, seemed to be of better quality than the rest.”

Later accounts would tell of how Avery himself had found “something more pleasing than jewels” aboard, usually reported to be Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter or granddaughter. T. Fox quotes contemporary East India Company sources in his Life of Henry Avery that the Ganj-e-Sawai was carrying a “relative” of the Emperor.

In another book on Avery, author Franklin J. Jameson cites a confidential letter of the 12th of October 1695 by Sir John Gayer, then governor of Bombay and president of the East India Company, informing the Lords of Trade that:

“It is certain the Pyrates, which these People affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the People of the Gunsway and Abdul Gofor’s Ship, to make them confess where their Money was, and there happened to be a great Umbraws Wife (as Wee hear) related to the King, returning from her Pilgrimage to Mecha, in her old age. She they abused very much, and forced several other Women, which caused one person of Quality, his Wife and Nurse, to kill themselves to prevent the Husbands seeing them (and their being) ravished.”

The survivors were left aboard their emptied ships, and set free to continue on their voyage back to India.

In his History of East India Company, John Keay records that when the damaged Ganj-e-Sawai finally limped its way back to harbour in Surat, news of the pirates’ attack on the pilgrims and the rape of the Muslim women spread quickly. He adds that the local Indian governor, Itimad Khan, immediately arrested the English subjects in Surat and that the Emperor closed four of the company’s factories in India and imprisoned the officers, nearly ordering an armed attack against the English city of Bombay with the goal of forever expelling the English from India.

To avoid being liquidated completely as a result of Emperor’s displeasure, the East India Company promised to pay all financial reparations. The government in London was also shaken by the atrocities and feared closure of the lucrative trade. Parliament acted quickly and declared the pirates hostis humani generis (“enemies of the human race”). A bounty of £500, later raised to £1000, was issued on Avery’s head, precipitating the first worldwide manhunt in recorded history.

The East India Company had agreed to pay reparations for the piracy. While the Mughal court demanded £600,000, the Company estimated the losses at £325,000. However, an insurance claim for the higher figure was filed by the Company’s Board of Directors.

Meanwhile, Avery and his crew escaped to the Bahamas and the West Indies. Offering a hefty bribe to the local British governor, Avery stayed on in the Bahamas till his arrest warrants arrived. Tipped off by the officials, he escaped again. There are many stories about his later life, the most plausible suggesting that he arrived in Ireland with some of his crew, where two of the pirates were captured while offloading their treasures. Avery was, however, never definitively sighted again, though author and pirate biographer Charles Johnson stated that he lost his treasures to a swindler and died a pauper in his hometown of Devonshire.

Twenty-six of Avery’s pirates were apprehended, mostly trying to sell their jewels and reported by jewellers to collect the reward. Only fifteen of the pirates were brought to trial and six were convicted but not before some court-room drama.

The government assembled the most prominent judges in the country to attend the trial. Five of the pirates pleaded ‘not guilty’. Despite considerable pressure to find the defendants guilty - with the Judge Advocate of the Admiralty reminding the jury that the consequences of an acquittal would be “the total loss of the Indian trade, and thereby the impoverishment of this kingdom”, the jury passed a verdict of ‘not guilty’.

The shocked court rushed through another indictment, and twelve days later the pirates were tried on a different set of charges, this time on account of conspiring to steal the Charles II -the original name of the Fancy - with piratical intent. As before, the court continually impressed the need for the pirates’ conviction. Judge Hedges condemned the “dishonourable” former jury and instructed their successors to act with “a true English spirit” by passing a conviction, repeatedly reminding them to “support...the navigation, trade, wealth, strength, reputation, and glory of this nation.” The jury duly found five of them guilty - one pirate was reprieved for pleading guilty - and sentenced to be hanged.

On 25 November 1696, these five were taken to the gallows and hanged to death. Aurangzeb probably knew the limits of his power against the masters of the high seas. With the reparations having been paid to the Mughal court, the incident finally found a closure. The British were able to continue their trading activities unhindered. Strangely, while this incident of piracy, rape, torture and plunder is well recorded, discussed and researched in Western history and literature, it has been forgotten in the Indian and ‘Muslim’ histories.

The incident came at a critical juncture of history when the balance of power in and around India was beginning to turn in favour of the British. Although the Company repeatedly found itself militarily disadvantaged against the Mughals on land, yet on the coasts and the high seas the British supremacy was unchallenged and complete, to the extent that they could stop all sea-trading and even Hajj activities at will. They could also destroy all coastal towns and installations from the long range guns on their ships, thereby forcing their terms. This was the beginning of an era of gunboat diplomacy.

The naval supremacy of the British in particular and the Europeans in general was a fact that wouldn’t have been lost on the successors of Emperor Babar and particularly on Aurangzeb, who was the last of the Mughals to dictate terms to the British. The Mughals must have wondered at the global reach that the Europeans were increasingly exercising from their home-bases thousands of miles away, and who were only growing stronger with time. The Mughals and the Indians, however, couldn’t fathom the liberating revolution in educational, intellectual, political and technological fields that was enabling the Europeans to project their power across the globe in far-flung lands and waters that the Mughals had never heard of.

Aurangzeb, who ruled India for five decades, was in many ways the last bead in the ‘rosary’ of powerful Muslim rulers in South Asia, whose first bead was Muhammad Bin Qasim. The latter had, according to popular legend, marched to Debal from Basra in answer to a woman’s wail of ‘Where are you Hajjaj?’

Aurangzeb, in his ruthless glory probably knew of the plight of his granddaughter but he and his governors and commanders could fume and writhe but could send no armies or fleets against the perpetrators of the heinous crime. The dishonour of a princess of his house largely went unpunished and ‘justice’ remained in the hands of a foreign government and some unknown members of a jury in far away London. He also couldn’t comprehend that in addition to the waters around India, his imperial power on land was inexorably shifting away to the foreign traders and that within about five decades of his death, the aftermath of the battles of Plassey and Buxar would have made these traders militarily supreme - the new masters of India.

Parvez Mahmood retired from the Pakistan Air Force as a Group Captain. He is now a software engineer

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: