Did Every Start Everything?

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson. River head Books – Penguin/Random House 2020.

Image: Pirate captain Henry Every is depicted on shore while his ship, the Fancy, engages an unidentified vessel (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Every.gif)

The voyage of Henry Every, British sailor turned mutineer and pirate, his crew and their ship, the Fancy, to seize the treasure ship of the Mughal Shah and molest the pilgrims, including the Shah’s relatives, homeward bound from Mecca in 1695 is billed as a turning point in world history. Johnson compares the taking of the Gunsway to the terrorist attacks of 9-11: a handful of men causing a massive shift in global history. According to his account, this act of piracy was the spark that lit the fuse for the takeover of India sixty years later by the British. It also provoked the British government’s shift from tolerating English pirates – he frequently mentions Sir Francis Drake – to eradicating them from the high seas. It also was a watershed moment for the popular press, as writers and ballad mongers poured out a stream of broadsides, news sheets and books recounting Every’s exploits.

The book is an entertaining one, though not as rich in the details of nautical daring do as in Treasure Island or Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin series. There’s only one sea fight, and its outcome is revealed at the beginning. There are no detailed accounts of the long voyages across open ocean – no storms, near escapes and so on. We know nothing of the actual lives led by these men aside from a few court depositions. Most of the documentary evidence is from the archives of the three powers involved, two governments and one international trading company. These do, however, provide a fascinating account of the workings of institutions confronting a crisis.

Simply put, the problem presented by Every’s audacious theft and by the probable rape of the female pilgrims by the pirates was how to mollify the outraged Grand Mughal Aurangzeb, a deeply religious and fundamentalist Muslim, so that he would not expel the East India Company from their factory in Surat or their fortified headquarters in Bombay. The Company was already in trouble at home, with a falling stock price driven largely by growing resistance to the flood of Indian cotton goods harming the British woolen producers and merchants. Now, Aurangzeb’s investigators accused the Company of conniving with the pirates who infested the Red Sea pilgrimage and trade routes. His troops placed the factors at Surat under house arrest, clapping them in irons. The response from the Company and its friends in the government of King William was a ringing denunciation of the pirates, offers of reward for their capture and notices distributed to British authorities around the world to be on the lookout for the Fancy’s captain and crew and, if caught, to return them to London for trial.

Perhaps the most significant response was thought up by the imprisoned East India factor in Surat, Samuel Annesley, who proposed that the Company’s powerfully armed merchant vessels should undertake to escort the Shah’s trading ships between Surat and the Red Sea ports, becoming, in effect, the navy of the Mughal Empire. The Company would thus demonstrate that it was as opposed to piracy as were the Mughals. After some hesitation and deliberation on both sides, the plan was adopted, the factors at Surat were freed, and the Company was able to resume its profitable business. It took another few years before it could make good on its promise to rid the Arabian seas of English Pirates – one of its own captains, William Kidd, was among the last to be caught and taken to London for public execution, but eventually the pirates stopped coming and turned instead to the Caribbean. There, piracy flourished during the last Golden Age of buccaneers, until the British Navy could at last stamp them out. 

What they couldn’t eradicate, however, was the popular appeal of the pirate as free spirit and, perhaps more important, the image of pirate life as direct democracy in practice. At a time when the authority of oligarchic or monarchical governments was often directed against ordinary people and inequality of status and wealth were extreme, the pirates stood out as examples of liberty and equality. Johnson quotes from several of the “pirate constitutions,” the articles drawn up specifying the rights of the crews, the limits of the captain’s power, and the equitable sharing of the profits of their enterprise. The court proceedings confirm that the huge treasure taken from the Gunsway was parceled out according to shares, with Captain Every receiving just twice what the ordinary seamen got – Johnson notes the current ratio of CEO to average worker compensation to highlight the extraordinary egalitarianism of the pirates. In popular histories, it went even further: Every was supposed to have gone on to found a pirate kingdom in Madagascar, fancifully named Libertalia, where freedom and equality reigned.

The reality was much harder for some and simply unknown for the rest: after returning to the Atlantic Ocean, the crew began to drift away. A few elected to remain on Ascension Island, essentially marooning themselves in a place where it’s hard to think their share of treasure was of much use. Some chose to stay in the then tiny settlement of Nassau. Some went to the American colonies, where there were secondhand reports of them living more or less openly and even boasting of their exploit. Every and the rest made a perilous crossing to. Ireland in a single-masted boat and slipped back to England, bringing what they could of their loot. One pirate was quickly caught when a maid in an inn noticed how heavy his coat was and informed the authorities: they found it full of Turkish gold coins, hidden in the linings. He was persuaded to turn informer, and fairly soon another member of the crew did too. With the testimony to make a case, the government tried six of Every’s men who had been caught in various places in England, often with help from people eager to receive the rewards offered.

At first, it seemed the desire to make an example of these men might be frustrated: the first trial on charges of piracy related to the taking of the Gunsway ended in “not guilty” verdicts for all. Shocked, the prosecutors and judges (who were in no way impartial) decided to indict the same men for their role in the mutiny and seizure of their ship at the start. Without legal counsel and under unfriendly questioning from the judges, the four who pled innocent were unable to convince the jury that they had not gone along willingly. Despite the rule against double jeopardy, the judges and prosecution kept returning to the acts of piracy committed afterwards to pile on the guilt. All were convicted. Only the one who had pled guilty to both indictments was spared the death penalty. The five were hanged at the Thames dock. 

Every himself simply vanished. The last anyone ever heard of him was reported by one of the informers: shortly after he was arrested and agreed to testify, he met the wife of the Fancy’s quartermaster in London, who told him she was going to see Captain Every. After, that nothing, leaving his future to be imagined by the popular authors and ballad makers.

Why does the “making” of the modern world inspire so many writers of popular nonfiction? We have numerous books attributing its emergence to ethnic groups, to commodities, to inventions, to particular events, to various ideas. The rise of modernity is a major organizing theme in academic curricula, including the great books program at the college where I earned my BA. There, the emphasis was on mathematics, especially the work of Viete, Descartes, Galileo and the rest, who transformed ancient geometry and arithmetic into analytic sciences, culminating in the calculus of Newton and Leibniz. Much of this is discussed in Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origins of Algebraby Jacob Klein. That’s pretty challenging reading though, and a “popular” account might not sell very well. Clocks and maps make better subjects, being more within the grasp of a large enough audience.

Likewise, the kind of detailed, heavily-documented histories produced by academic historians generally don’t provide the sharply focused, dramatic illuminations provided by books like this one. They take due note of the small events that trigger major ones, like the assassination that led to World War I, but concentrate more on the circumstances that allowed a minor event to spiral into a catastrophe. This is an important point: large institutions can easily grow by their own internal dynamic to the point where they are unstable. I recently read G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918, in which he shows how the growth of a precarious balance of military power in Europe produced a situation in which a major war was nearly inevitable. Johnson attempts to do the same in a more modest way, by including chapters on the origins of piracy (as far back as the late Bronze Age Sea Peoples) the rise of the Mughal Empire ( an Islamic dynasty, which ruled from Afghanistan to the south of India in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries) and the growth of the East India Company (which really did eventually manage to trigger some truly global changes). The context that’s mostly missing, however, is the geopolitical situation in the late seventeenth century: the European conflicts, the internal revolutions and unrest in England and the effects of early industrialization, enclosure, colonialism and mercantilism. Considered against this background, the events described seem less earth shaking.

India probably was bound to come under colonial control, given the richness of the prize and the weakness of its government institutions and armies, compared to Europe’s. Annesley’s innovative idea to take over maritime security may have set a small precedent but was perhaps mostly symbolic. So was the war against pirates. Every had crossed a line: robbery on the high seas was no big deal unless it interfered with more powerful interests. Privateering continued to be official policy; the U.S. Constitution explicitly mentions Marque and Reprisal. For many years, the European powers paid tribute to the Barbary states as a cheaper way of dealing with the threat. Only when things got out of hand were naval forces employed and offenders made examples of. Today, we still glorify buccaneers in movies and find real pirates, like the Somalis, something less than “Enemies of All Mankind.” And honestly, the “global manhunt” for Every involved nothing like the seventeenth century equivalent of the resources devoted to finding Osama Bin Laden or even James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King. 

As with so many books in this “world changing” genre, the account is fascinating in its details and ultimately unconvincing in its claim of importance. 

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