“Enemy of All Mankind: a True Story of Piracy, Power and History’s First Global Manhunt” by Steven Johnson

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On 7 September 1695, just off Surat in Gujarat, an English pirate ship knocked off the Fath Mahmamadi, owned by an Indian trader who, according to a contemporary source, did as much trade alone as the East Indian Company all together. The pirates had been waiting for it at the Bab-el-Mandeb between Arabia and the Horn of Africa, but the Fath Mahmamadi had slipped by them in the dark of night. The pirates, whose ship the Fancy was one of the fastest afloat, beat the Indian vessel back to its home port and laid in wait again. The Fath Mahmamadi surrendered after a single broadside, yielding more gold and silver than the pirates had ever seen in one place.

Just a few days later, a bigger prize came into view: the Ganj-i-Sawai, a treasure ship of the Great Mughal Aurangzeb himself, returning from the Hajj. The Fancy should have been no match for the Gunsway, as it was dubbed in English, but one of the Indian cannons exploded and a lucky shot from the Fancy felled the mainmast. The pirates boarded and found gold, silver, jewels and other treasure beyond measure.

The heist, one of the richest before or since, soon became legend, inspiring ballads, plays—and Daniel Defoe. The pirate’s name was Henry Every.

 

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson (Riverhead, May 2020)
Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, Steven Johnson (Riverhead, May 2020)

Steven Johnson tells the story with swashbuckling aplomb in Enemy of All Mankind: a True Story of Piracy, Power and History’s First Global Manhunt. The Fancy starts off as the newly-built Charles II, set to salvage sunken Spanish galleons in the Caribbean, but gets (bureaucratically) marooned in A Coruña. Every leads a mutiny, and sets sail for the Red Sea where the American pirate Thomas Tew had only recently taken down an Indian merchantman.

The taking of the Gunsway causes a major international incident. It wasn’t just the money. The women the ship was also carrying back from Hajj were, it is hardly necessary to say, badly mistreated: several reportedly took their own lives before the pirates could rape them. (There may or may not have been an Indian “princess” on-board the Gunsway who may or may not have gone, willingly or unwilling, with Every. Johnson gives every indication of wishing this were true, but concludes that it is probably romantic whimsy.)

Aurangzeb does not distinguish between British pirates and the East India Company, and so imprisons any official or employee of the latter he can get his hands one. The British Government, once they receive the news (and urgent appeals from the East Indian Company who can foresee their shares tanking) decide that, Francis Drake and his fellow privateers notwithstanding, piracy was bad for business. Every and his crew were to be made an example of.

After their brief but lucrative stay off the coast of India, Every and the Fancy hot-tails it to the Bahamas, where they split up. Every and a small number of others buy a ship and sail it to Ireland, whence Every disappears. Some of the others get caught and end up on trial, the transcripts of which form one of the major sources for the events. The other is Khafi Khan, an Mughal chronicler who played a political role in the event’s aftermath.

 

This is a rollicking good tale, popular history at its best, filled with many “really?” moments—for example, the Indian Ocean had at the time better pickings than the Spanish Main, that America produced far more than its fair share of pirates and that, indeed, the Western hemisphere was intertwined with Asia far earlier than most histories have it. Johnson tells it very well.

The story itself, however, is rather spare. Johnson compensates with generous amounts of background information (or what might less charitably be called filler). Some is relevant and needed, such as introductions to the East Indian Company, the Mughal Empire, and a discussion of the literature and popular culture that grew around the event. But Johnson ranges far and wide, covering the Bronze Age “Sea People” who terrorized the ancient Egyptians, the Prophet Mohammad, chintz, protectionism, the sources of the word “terrorism”, and much besides. This is all well done and Johnson doesn’t linger, but the ratio of explanatory material to narrative is high.

Johnson would also like to make the case that the episode was historically crucial: facing ejection from the Subcontinent, the East Indian Company proposed to the Mughals that they provide protection for Indian shipping, with EIC ships being the enforcement arm of this new regime of maritime law. The proposal, a poisoned chalice if there ever was one, was accepted.

Johnson is proposing a butterfly-flapping-its-wings model of history. If the Gunsway’s cannon hadn’t exploded, if the Fancy hadn’t managed to topple its mainmast with a lucky shot:

 

the Indian vessel easily shakes off its under-powered attacker… An almost imperceptible difference—a few ounces of extra gunpowder—can trigger nonlinear results. In the case of these two ships confronting each other in the Indian Ocean, those nearly microscopic causes will trigger a wave of effects that resonate around the world.

 

But if it hadn’t been that, it might well have been something else. The broader trends of a rising Britain and a declining Mughal Empire were already in place.

History for its own sake no longer seems to suffice. Johnson points the similarities between piracy and latter-day terrorism, and between the pirates’ internal agreements and latter-day democracy:

 

The elegance of the pirate governance model went beyond their voting rights. Most pirate ships during the period created a separation of powers on board that bears a striking resemblance to the architecture of the US Constitution.

 

Well, perhaps. One he misses is that Aurangzeb’s conflation of the East India Company and British pirates has echoes in American complaints about Chinese industrial espionage and hacking.

But the greatest irony goes unmarked: that of the British Government throwing the book at pirates who, operating without a mandate, stole Indian gold and silver, and hanging then in punishment, while then proceeding not long after to permit the East Indian Company to steal the entire country.

 

Well-written and fast-paced, covering lots of ground, chock-a-block with interesting anecdotes and walking the tightrope between strict fact and reasonable speculation, Enemy of All Mankind is a history book for people who don’t like history. Those who like history will probably like it too.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.