Thursday 26 January 2017

Henry Avery and the Mughals

Henry Avery,  known as Long Ben to his crewmen and associates was the most notorious pirate of his time. Dubbed "The Arch Pirate" and "The King of Pirates" by contemporaries, he earned his fame by becoming one of the few major pirate captains to retire with his loot without being arrested or killed in battle. He was also responsible for what was probably the most profitable raid in pirate history.

Born in England, around 1659, her briefly served in the Navy then aboard a slave-ship, before becoming a privateer in the service of Spain. When the Spaniards failed to pay the crew's wages, they mutinied, elected Avery as their captain, renamed their ship the Fancy and took the the high seas as pirates.

By 1695 Avery was operating in the Indian Ocean. Now in nominal command of a flotilla of six vessels, he headed to the Arabian Sea, to intercept the treasure fleet of the Grand Mughal which was on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. This fleet consisted of some 25 ships, including the massive Ganj-i-sawai, which mounted between 60 and 80 guns and carried hundreds of soldiers. As Avery's ships approached the fleet scattered into the night. Avery pursued, some of his ships falling behind and taking no further part in the enterprise. Eventually he caught up with the Fateh Muhammed, which was captured fairly easily, before then taking on the Ganj-i-sawai. In a bold attack, supported by another ship, the Pearl, Avery took the Mughal vessel in a two-hour fight. An orgy of rape, torture and slaughter of the crew and several hundred passengers ensued, at the end of which Avery had secured treasure to the value of what would now be over 50 million pounds.

The Great Mughal was outraged, and the English government and East India Company put a huge price on Avery's head in what was possibly the first ever global manhunt. Avery evaded capture, however, and retired to an unknown location. His final fate, and that of his treasure, is unknown.

Avery's attack on the Mughal fleet seemed to be a great little action to play out with Galleys and Galleons and my new pirate ships. I decided to tweak history a little, and condense the attacks on the Fateh Muhammed and Ganj-i-sawai onto the same table. I reality they'd really be individual actions.

I settled on the following forces:


Avery in the Fancy - Q3 C3 - Galleon Rig, Dread Pirate, Swashbucklers, Derring Do, Razee - 68pts

Portsmouth Adventure - Q3 C2 - Galleon Rig, Swashbucklers - 36pts

Pearl - Q4 C2 - Galleon Rig, Swashbucklers - 29pts

Mughal Fleet

Ganj-i-sawai - Q4 C5 - Galleon Rig, Flagship, High Castles, Drilled Soldiers, Merchant, Reinforced Hull, Stern Chasers - 77pts

Fateh Muhammed - Q4 C4 - Galleon Rig, Merchant, Drilled Soldiers - 35pts

Baghlah Surat - Q4 C3 - Galleon Rig, Merchant - 23pts

It would seem, from what limited information I can glean, that the Mughal ships would have been large dhows (very large; the Ganj-i-sawai was around 1600 tons), and would probably have had lateen rigs. I went with galleon rigs for the points, but if you chose to reduce them to lateen-rigged you could add a fourth ship with the same stats as the Baghlah Surat.

The Mughals set up in a corner first, with their goal being to exit off the opposite corner. They would get 4 points if the Ganj-i-sawai escaped, 3 for the Fateh Muhammed and 2pts for the Baghlah Surat. Destroying or capturing Avery's ship was worth 2pts and the other two pirate ships were worth 1pt each.

Avery's ships set up in an adjacent corner. The Fancy and Portsmouth Adventure set  course to intercept the treasure ships towards the centre of the table, whilst the Pearl was to work around behind them and maybe pick off the weaker Baghlah Surat.

The pirates would score 4pts if they could capture the Ganj-i-sawai, or force it to run aground. They would get 3pts for the Fateh Muhammed and 2 points for the Baghlah Surat. If a Mughal ship left the table at any point other than their designated exist point, the  the pirates would score 2pts if it was the Ganj-i-sawai, and 1pt each for the others.

The Mughals kept their line early on but reduced sail in order to force the pirates to show their hand before the treasure ships were committed to passing between the two reefs towards the centre of the table. The pirates moved forward to cover the gap.

The Pearl also worked into a good position to the rear of the Mughal line.

The Mughal force broke up. The Baghlah Surat turned to pass north of the reef and avoid the two main pirate ships altogether. The other two ships turned to pass south of the reef, shaving it close in order to avoid the pirates cutting in from two sides.

The problem for the pirates was timing. Despite being merchant ships, the Mughal vessels were still fairly powerful, and could only be taken down either by extremely good luck, or by the combined efforts of at least two pirate vessels. This meant that any attacks - especially boarding attempts - would have to go in simultaneously. Avery had Derring Do, of course, which could reduce the odds in his favour in one round of combat only.

The Pearl opened fire. Gunnery was to be mostly ineffective in this game.

And now the luck of the game took hold. The pirates were moving in cautiously, in order to avoid being raked by the larger Mughal ships. However the wind shifted counter-clockwise, leaving the pirates having to now work upwind to their prizes. A series of failed activation rolls on both sides saw the pirates immobile with the Mughals unwilling to try their guns.

The Fateh Muhammed had now worked past the pirates altogether. Avery decided that it was now too risky to try and take it on and have the possibility of the larger, more valuable, Ganj-i-sawai escape. So he let it go.

Poor sailing by the Ganj-i-sawai's crew saw it in trouble between the reef and an island. In normal circumstances this wouldn't be a difficult position from which to extricate themselves, but with treasure-hungry pirates bearing down on them, there wasn't the time or space to do anything clever.

The pirates were still missing opportunities, though, as the Fancy and Portsmouth Adventure completely failed to organise a run at the floundering Ganj-i-sawai.

The Fateh Muhammed made good its escape.

Finally! The Portsmouth Adventure ran aboard the Ganj-i-sawai and grappled, hoping the the Fancy would come up in support.

It didn't, as Avery's crew blundered again.

However the Ganj-i-sawai also failed to exploit the brief advantage it had over the Portsmouth Adventure, failing to launch a boarding action of its own in response.

This time Avery didn't fail, and he grappled the mighty Mughal ship as well. His crew swept across the decks of the Ganj-i-sawai, sweeping all before them, and leaving it ripe for the taking.

All it would take was the crew of the Portsmouth Adventure to strike in support. They tried, but a dogged defence by the Mughal soldiers on board repulsed their attack, At this point the captain of the Ganj-i-sawai went for a bold move, and ordered a counter-attack. The crew of the Portsmouth Adventure were driven back with fearful casualties. Emboldened the Mughals drove back Avery's next attack as well.

The Baghlah Surat attempted to creep past the action. But to the stern of the Ganj-i-sawai, the Pearl was coming after it.

Disaster! The Ganj-i-sawai's crew cut the grapples between them and the Portsmouth Adventure, leaving the Fancy's crew fighting alone. Avery's men decided that they'd had enough, and threw down their arms.

No longer grappled, the Portsmouth Adventure turned away from the massive Mughal ship. The Mughal gunners opened fire, and reduced the pirate vessel to matchwood.

The Ganj-i-sawai was under way again. But casualties amongst its crew had been heavy, and much confusion reigned on board. An order was misunderstood ...

... and the ship was run aground on the island.

The Fancy and the grounded Ganj-i-sawai were now blocking the escape of the Baghlah Surat which had to turn across the wind to find a way past. The Pearl had been in hot pursuit, but with the fighting obviously over elsewhere its crew became confused as well, and they tried to pass to the west of the small island.

Coral ripped the bottom out of their ship, and it sank.

The Mughals won a fairly convincing victory here, picking up 6pts for escaping ships (I assumed that their final vessel got away in its own time), and 4pts for captured or destroyed pirate ships. 10 points in total. The pirates picked up 4pts for the beached Ganj-i-sawai.

With plenty of Q4 ships in play it was inevitable that there would be some awkward activation failures. In addition the fact that Avery's ships had to work upwind into the attack didn't help. The Portsmouth Adventure took a few shots as it worked in, and only some lucky defence rolls prevented it being damaged. With hindsight Avery should have kept his three ships together, using the smaller two to grapple and board the Fateh Muhammed, whilst the Fancy delayed the Ganj-i-sawai until one of the other two ships could support him. Sending the rather useless Pearl off on its own was a recipe for failure.

My favourite moments were Avery's initial sweeping clear of the Ganj-i-sawai's decks, which promised so much, and then the Ganj-i-sawai running aground after its successful escape.

I first came across this action as a scenario for Wooden Ships and Iron Men in an issue of the Avalon Hill General, but for that game it was a rather uninteresting single-ship action. These rules, with the random activation and potential for disaster on the All At Sea table made for a much more interesting version.


  1. This looked like a lot of fun, although the rules seem to lead to a chancy sort of action. I like those little ships...

    1. Certainly, with the activations, and the risky All At Sea table for damaged vessels, there is a level of unpredictability. But this isn't the formal, organised warfare of regular age of sail rules, with their emphasis on the Napoleonic era. This is small-scale, irregular warfare, and I think that the rules reflect that. It works.


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