Enemy of All Mankind

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Sept. 11, 1695, a Mughal treasure ship found itself so shrouded in Indian Ocean haze that the lookout failed to sight an English vessel until she was only 5 miles distant. She was coming on very fast—possibly making 15 knots—but this didn’t worry the captain of the Ganj-i-sawai (Anglicized into Gunsway in the copious accounts that were to follow): His ship mounted 80 guns; he commanded 400 musketeers and had 1,000 men aboard.

The British interloper, the Fancy, had a crew of only about 150, but she possessed 46 guns—an extraordinary weight of metal for a pirate ship—and a determined captain who had been waiting months for the Gunsway. The Mughal ship fired first and was at once beset by a scarcely believable run of bad luck. That initial shot burst the gun, killing its crew and leaving a swath of flaming wreckage; and the first broadside from the Fancy not only struck the Mughal’s 40-foot mainmast but knocked it right down to the deck in a tangle of spars and rigging. Amid the confusion, the Fancy ranged alongside; her men swarmed aboard the Gunsway in the smoke and, having subdued a far larger crew, made straight for her rich cargo.

This encounter, dramatic in itself, is the pivot on which far greater events turn and continue to reverberate down to this day, as Steven Johnson argues with verve and conviction in his thoroughly engrossing “Enemy of All Mankind.” “Most confrontations like this one, viewed from the wide angle of history,” he writes, “are minor disputes, sparks that quickly die out. But every now and then, someone strikes a match that lights up the whole planet.”

The man who struck this particular match was Henry Every, a Devon-born Royal Navy renegade who had turned pirate and, after stealing a fortune from the richest man on earth, became the first object of an international manhunt. On that one violent day in the Indian Ocean, he set in motion a chain of events that, as Mr. Johnson shows, did much to shape the modern world.

. . . .

The career that was to capture the world’s attention began blandly enough in 1694, when Every was hired by a group of British investors who had formed a company called Spanish Expedition Shipping to recover treasure from sunken galleons in the West Indies. They built a “ship of force” named the Charles II, which, with three consorts, got as far as Madrid, a voyage that should have taken a couple of weeks but, for reasons lost to history, consumed five months. And there they waited, without getting their promised pay, for some never-received orders, until Every, the first mate of the Charles II, seized the ship, renamed her the Fancy and set sail for the riches of India.

. . . .

Euphemisms notwithstanding, reports of the attack generated growing anger on a national level. One of the earliest, issued just days later by a local British official, held that “it is certain the pirates, which these people affirm were all English, did do very barbarously by the people of the Gunsway . . . to make them confess where their money was.” They seized a woman “related to the king, returning from her pilgrimage to Mecca, in her old age. She they abused very much, and forced several other women, which caused one person of quality, his wife and nurse, to kill themselves to prevent the husbands seeing them (and their being) ravished.”

. . . .

Mr. Johnson writes: “Against extraordinary odds, Henry Every had made his fortune. But he must have realized, listening to the screams echoing across the water from the Gunsway, that his men’s actions had now made him something else: the world’s most wanted man.”

And, surely against any desire he likely had, one of the world’s most influential ones. His attack took place during the vigorous infancy of the joint-stock company, which—then as now—allowed investors to diminish their financial risk by investing in the whole operation rather than gambling on a single voyage. The joint-stock company most crucial to Britain—really, almost an alternate, farmed-out government of its own—was the East India Co. It had already grown so important to England’s commerce that to assuage the Mughal emperor’s wrath the whole British government had to make amends by condemning the Fancy’s attack and its English captain. And, in condemning it, had to suppress piracy as a whole. A mere 30 years earlier Sir Francis Drake might plausibly be seen as a pirate operating under British protection. No longer.

Parliament passed new laws; the East India Co.—which came to have a navy of its own—enforced them, and in time it became clear that Henry Every’s profitable day had helped bring about a trading system that, despite the fall of empires and the rise of modern technology, has not in essence changed for three centuries.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

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