The Pirate Round existed only for a brief period of time but it allowed for some of the richest pickings the world has ever known.
The day Thomas Tew asked his men to steer a fresh course for the Cape of Good Hope in January 1693, he became more than a privateer; he became one of history’s most innovative pirates. Tew may not have liked his association with piracy but when his crew shouted their approval and allowed him to forget about attacking French holdings in West Africa in favour of pursuing riches in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, his stock not only grew, he inspired a whole new wave of piracy. Prior to Tew’s decision to head for fresh waters, piracy had mainly flourished in the Caribbean. The pirates generally had the blessing of the European powers who handed them letters of legitimacy and they tended to target Spanish ships, intercepting them as they made their way across the sea so that they could relieve them of their plentiful booty. For the rival colonial powers, it was a way of engaging Spain in a proxy war of sorts but it wasn’t to last. Spanish power began to wane and peace started to take hold at a governmental level. Opportunities for pirates in the Caribbean were therefore getting ever more scarce. Faced with a particularly dangerous mission to Africa, Tew felt there were better, easier pickings elsewhere. He’d heard that ships packed with silks and spices were sailing through Indian waters and he believed the time was right to target one. Even better, he had got wind that the ships were unprotected and it made the new mission all the more enticing. Starting from Bermuda, Tew and his crew sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, along the East African coast, en route to the Red Sea. They ran down the flagship of the Mughal Empire that had been sailing from India and found it to be the most easy of pickings. Rather than defend the huge quantities of gold, spices, ivory, silk and jewellery on board, the ship’s 300-strong crew decided not to put up a fight. In doing so, Tew and his men collected booty valued at some £100,000. It hadn’t taken long for word to get around that Tew’s men had divided up their spoils once they arrived at Île Sainte-Marie, off the coast of Madagascar. They each had taken goods worth at least £1,200 – a life-changing amount – and it only served to encourage other pirates to follow the same route. Tew’s chosen path became known as the Pirate Round and the buccaneers who followed it were referred to as ‘Roundsmen’. Scores of East India Company ships sailing between Britain and India became prime prey as a result.
The potential of the Pirate Round was stark but it was another pirate, Henry Every, who turned it into something of a holy grail. It was 1695 and Tew had ventured out once more to raid a Muslim ship, this time facing fierce resistance, which ended with him being killed. Every was in the same waters, commanding the warship, Fancy, backed by his 150-strong crew and 46 guns. With these, he took possession of Fateh Muhammad, bagging gold and silver worth £40,000. But it was the follow-up that reaped the rewards. Battling hard against the Ganj- i-Sawai ship, he seized an incredible haul worth as much as £525,000 – arguably the largest booty ever taken by a pirate crew. That was it. Captains everywhere sensed a jackpot and a chance to bag some serious treasure of their own and so they set off in their droves. The pirates would leave from one of a number of colonial America’s Atlantic ports, depending on where they were usually based, be it New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Rhode Island or Bermuda.