The Pirates’ Booty That Changed the Course of History

ENEMY OF ALL MANKIND A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt By Steven Johnson On Sept. 11, 1695, as the ...

A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt
By Steven Johnson

On Sept. 11, 1695, as the Mughal treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawai neared the end of its return voyage from Mecca to the port city of Surat on the Indian Ocean, a lookout spotted the sails of an English frigate on the horizon, approaching with extraordinary speed. Minutes later, the English ship — the Fancy, under the command of the notorious pirate captain Henry Every — had closed on the Mughal vessel and shattered its 40-foot mainmast with a single, fluke cannon shot.

Overpowering the Indian crew and in search of the wealth they knew to be aboard, the pirates discovered many women among the pilgrims below-decks, including relatives of the Grand Mughal Aurangzeb, the dynastic ruler of the subcontinent, self-styled “Universe Conqueror” and in all probability the richest man on earth. Savage and ruthless, Every’s men began a dayslong rampage of rape and torture, before at last freeing their surviving victims and making off with a haul of treasure, including gold, silver, gems, ivory, myrrh and frankincense, worth at least 200,000 English pounds — or about $20 million today. It was, Steven Johnson writes in “Enemy of All Mankind,” “one of the most lucrative heists in the history of crime.”

These were clearly not the swashbuckling brigands familiar to readers of “Treasure Island,” nor the sozzled rock star mariners of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” apparently just a handful of quaaludes away from a watery grave. Johnson describes them as “a gang of xenophobic sexual predators.” And despite his subtitle — “A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt” — his detailed account of Every’s exploits and the attempts to bring him to justice is not a straightforward narrative of crime and punishment on the high seas. Johnson instead uses Every’s remarkable story as the organizing principle for a kaleidoscopic rumination on the ways in which a single event, and the actions of a handful of men with no obvious access to the levers of state power, can change the course of history. Johnson argues that the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai, which would have been an outrage in any century, takes on greater significance when seen as a crucial inflection point in the rise of the British Empire.

By the beginning of the 1700s, the power of the Mughal potentates who had ruled India for hundreds of years, garnering a vast wealth from the manufacture and export of spices and cotton textiles, was on the cusp of eclipse by the ruthless might of the East India Company. The first joint stock corporation in history, the company was established in 1600 to finance trade expeditions between India and England. But it gradually became a means for the English government to effectively outsource its political and economic influence in India, and it was through the company’s private military forces that the British crown would, by the end of the next century, conquer and subjugate the entire subcontinent. Yet when the Fancy appeared over the horizon that day in 1695, the East India Company had still only a tenuous hold on its trade agreements with the Mughals, who allowed the company to maintain a pair of fortified settlements in Bombay and Surat only so long as it seemed in their financial interests to do so.

And when the survivors of the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai finally arrived in Surat, the enraged Universe Conqueror and his myrmidons held the company’s local agents directly responsible for the atrocities of the pirate Every and the rogue Englishmen under his command. The governor of Surat had the company managers thrown in irons, and cut off their communication with the outside world: Not only their lives but the future of their commercial enterprise in India was threatened with extinction. It was the response to the crisis improvised by these men, and by the government back in London, that set the stage for British hegemony on the subcontinent for the next 200 years. A royal proclamation declared Every and his crew hostis humani generis — enemies of all mankind — a legal formulation that allowed the English crown to extend its jurisdiction across the high seas and launch a worldwide manhunt for the pirates. This act and the show trial that followed were among the most significant steps in the establishment of an empire built on global trade.

Deploying a structure that echoes that of his 2006 book, “The Ghost Map,” which was built around the tale of how one Victorian physician helped solve the mystery of a cholera epidemic in 1850s London, Johnson is here less interested in the story of Henry Every than in its implications, and its part in a wider meta-narrative. As a result, we are treated to often fascinating digressions on the origins of terrorism, celebrity and the tabloid media; the tricky physics of cannon manufacture; and the miserable living conditions of the average 17th-century seaman. At times, this approach proves a hindrance to being swept away by the tale of the world’s “most wanted man,” and is complicated by the thinness of the historical record and disagreement about what really happened and to whom: Much of the book is given over to debate and conjecture about what did occur. Johnson admits that we may not know where or when Every was born, what he looked like or even his real name.

Nonetheless, the story Johnson tells is populated with concepts and consequences that resonate across the centuries — not least for Britain, a country that, even in a predigital era, relinquished its territorial and political responsibilities to a powerful private corporation with its own transnational ambitions. Eventually, Johnson also makes a convincing case that the events he describes constitute “a stretch of history’s river where small perturbations can determine which way it ultimately runs” and that but for the choices made by a single, mysterious pirate on the deck of his ship in 1695 the world might have turned out to be a very different place.

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Newsrust: The Pirates’ Booty That Changed the Course of History
The Pirates’ Booty That Changed the Course of History
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