When Piracy Threatened to Destroy the East India Company

(Illustration: 18th-century engraving depicting Henry Every/via Wikimedia. Book cover via Amazon.)
A new book tells the story of the 17th-century clash between the pirate Henry Every and the world’s most extraordinary global corporation.

I wasn’t surprised to learn from Steven Johnson’s Wikipedia entry that he majored in semiotics at Brown University. At his best — in the books The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, and The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World — he is an indefatigable, astute extrapolator. Johnson delivered on the promise of those subtitles, revealing how currently overlooked historical episodes were, in fact, momentous inflection points (to use a trendy cliche). The author attempts the same kind of feat in Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt. The book is, as usual, well written and researched, but it’s frustrating, not only because Johnson’s presumably portentous prototypes didn’t strike me as particularly compelling, but because he omits an interpretation of his story that might be more provocative than his preferred paradigms.

Hostis humani generis is Latin for “enemies of all mankind” a legal classification that “for centuries . . . was reserved exclusively for pirates,” according to Johnson. If nothing else, Enemy of All Mankind graphically proves that real pirates had nothing in common with puckish swashbucklers such as Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp. On one level, the book chronicles a fight to the death, in the late-17th and early-18th centuries, between a pirate ship and that most extraordinary of global corporations, the Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies, more popularly known as the Honourable East India Company, John Company, or the East India Company. The pirates didn’t stand a chance.

The company was chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 to trade in the East Indies (basically, India, ruled since 1526 by the Muslim Grand Mughals), and by 1612 the company had established a trading post in Surat, “the epicenter of Red Sea trade.” The East India Company would in due course move its headquarters to nearby Bombay and “by the mid-1680s, calico and chintz constituted 86 percent of the company’s trade with India. The insatiable demand for Indian cotton generated historic returns for the company’s investors.” The Honourable Company would eventually reach beyond India and install branches in other parts of Asia (more on this later), but the subcontinent was integral to John Company’s prosperity and, indeed, survival. And so when the company crossed paths with one Henry Every — a pirate who was the scourge (briefly) of Indian shipping — in 1695, it perforce took the matter very seriously.

Here’s where Enemy of All Mankind’s problems start: Every is the protagonist of this book, but we know very little about his life and personality. Historians aren’t even sure of his real name, although, Johnson says, after assessing what evidence there is, “it seems appropriate to call him Henry Every.” Scholars are more confident that he was born in Devonshire, England, but “almost nothing [else] is known about Henry Every’s childhood.” So let’s skip to his adolescence: If Every was (possibly) born in 1659, then “the most likely scenario is that Every joined the [Royal Navy] in the early 1670s and participated in a series of attacks against the cities of the Barbary Coast” — havens for pirates — “during that period.” Every would have been in his early teens during these campaigns.

In 1693, a civilian again, Every was apparently involved in the slave trade. Also in that year, he enlisted as a first mate in the so-called Spanish Expedition, a salvage mission that was organized (by English businessmen) to sail to the Caribbean. It never made it. While the expedition was dawdling off the coast of Spain, Every and 79 other sailors from the four-vessel fleet mutinied and took control of Every’s ship, the Charles II; Every’s fellow mutineers named him the new captain. Matters here become perplexing again: Where did Every learn the complexities of navigation and strategic thinking and leadership? Perhaps I missed something, but I’m clueless. Withal, Every and his fellow mutineers were nice and allowed the sailors who didn’t mutiny to exit the ship. The Fancy — the renamed Charles II — wouldn’t be so generous in the future.

Every’s destination was the Indian Ocean and specifically the Gulf of Aden, waters teeming with Indian vessels — often filled with “silver, gold, spices, and fabric” — heading for Mecca or Red Sea ports. The chronicle of the Fancy’s journey is filled with horrors. The crew captured duped Guineans and, Johnson notes, the vessel became “inarguably a slave ship” (some of the slaves were sold; the fate of the others is unknown). In what is now Somalia, the pirates, according to one of them, burned down the town of Maydh because its residents wouldn’t trade with the Fancy. For good measure the pirates also destroyed a mosque.

By the time Every reached his prime “hunting ground” his ship was accompanied by five other pirate vessels. He remained in overall command: Johnson maintains that Every “possessed extraordinary charisma” and was “certainly shrewd.” And: “Certainly he was a thief. Whether there was honor in the thief — that is harder to detect at such a distance.” Based on Johnson’s own evidence, I don’t agree. Henry Every — and his crew — strikes me as scum.

On September 7, 1695, the Fancy looted an Indian merchant ship, the Fath Mahmamadi, containing “significant reserves of silver and gold.” Two days later, Every really hit the jackpot. The pirates seized the Indian vessel, the Gunsway: “Every and his men capture a fortune worthy of the Gunsway’s name — ‘exceeding treasure.’ In the immense hull of the ship, they find astounding quantities of gold and silver, along with jewels, ivory, myrrh, frankincense, saffron, and other delights.” The subsequent pillaging “ranks as one of the most lucrative heists in the history of crime.” But the treasure that was readily available wasn’t enough for the pirates. Johnson makes a cogent case that they tortured the Gunsway’s officers — “the standard practice of pirate inquisition” — to force them to disclose where secret caches of valuables were located. (There are no first-hand accounts of the interrogations, but Johnson persuasively generalizes from other ghastly incidents.) And then there were the Gunsway’s passengers: dozens of women returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca; some of them were members of the court of India’s Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the “Universe Conqueror.” In an orgy of appalling violence, the Fancy’s crew sexually assaulted — gang-raped — these women for days, at least those who didn’t kill themselves to save their honor. Every might not have participated in the sexual sadism, but he had to know what was going on — and he failed to stop it. Johnson is a gentlemanly writer who doesn’t resort to florid language, but his conclusion is still damning: “We should not mince words: Every’s men were rapists of the worst order.”

Aurangzeb was livid when news reached him in Delhi about what had happened on the Gunsway. “It was hard to imagine a crime better engineered to infuriate Aurangzeb. Henry Every — wittingly or not — had transgressed the most cherished of the Universe Conqueror’s possessions: his fortune, his faith, and his women.” Even worse, in the calculations of the East India Company, Aurangzeb concluded that the company had collaborated in the attacks on the Gunsway and the Fath Mahmamadi (John Company was, of course, English, and the emperor learned that the pirates were also, for the most part), and that, indeed, “piracy was a key part of [the company’s] business model.” And so Aurangzeb planned to oust the Honourable Company from his domain.

Obviously, it was a decision that would probably destroy the East India Company. However, the company hadn’t become “arguably the most powerful economic force on the planet, rivaled only by . . . national governments,” by being run by stupid and feckless men. These wily individuals understood that they had to convince Aurangzeb that there was in fact a distinction between the company and the Fancy, and so they marshaled the relevant parts of the English government, including King William, to demand the arrest of Every anywhere he might be found within England’s empire. “For the first time in history,” Johnson writes, “a global network of military forces, local law enforcement officers, governors in remote colonial outposts, and merchant shipmen — along with amateur bounty hunters, many of them pirates — would be on the lookout for a single wanted man.” That, presumably, would show the Universe Conqueror (he wasn’t, incidentally) that John Company meant business, that it wouldn’t tolerate piracy against an ally. The ploy worked (it didn’t hurt that the East India Company also offered to pay reparations and protect Indian merchant ships).

However, when the Fancy reached the English colony of the Bahamas in April 1696 (with 90 newly acquired slaves), the official all-points bulletin hadn’t been issued yet (that would be in July), and the corrupt Bahamas governor accepted a bribe to let the pirates stay. Two months later the crew split up. Some remained where they were. Some sailed to the English colonies on the American mainland, which were known to be hospitable to pirates (they were, in this case). Every and 20 crewmen, on a “single-masted sailboat,” journeyed to northeast Ireland for, from a modern perspective, unfathomable reasons. Eight of the pirates who accompanied Every were eventually found and arrested. Two of them turned state’s evidence, one pleaded guilty, and five pleaded not guilty. The trial, in October 1696, of six defendants (one was the man who pleaded guilty) focused only on the Gunsway raid. All were acquitted — as was, even, the absent Every. Johnson suggests that the jury probably had “little empathy for a foreign emperor and his subjects.” But the legal system wasn’t finished with the men. Less than two weeks later they were tried for mutiny — capturing the Charles II. This time the jury, likely outraged by a crime committed against English property, found the six defendants guilty. The five who pleaded not guilty were hanged. Johnson notes that “courts were heavily weighted toward the authority of the state,” and that’s putting it mildly. The defendants didn’t have lawyers, there were no appeals, and at least one of the judges acted, in effect, like a prosecutor. But perhaps the trials were fair according to the norms of the time.

And Every? He was never apprehended, and to this day there are no clues to what happened to him after he arrived in Ireland. (Good riddance, I say.) Thus ends the squalid account of Henry Every and the crew of the Fancy.

But Johnson’s primary objective is to tease out the tale’s significance. He asserts that “to make sense of the pirates — and of Henry Every most of all — we have to adopt a . . . split consciousness. They were the vanguard of a new, more equitable and democratic social order. And they were killers and rapist and thieves, enemies of all mankind.” By a “new, more equitable and democratic social order,” the author is referring to the supposed practice on pirate ships of adhering to certain “democratic” procedures: the captain was elected by the crew, plunder was fairly divided up, punishments were justly meted out. I emphasize that I’m not an expert on piratology, but surely I’m entitled to a large measure of skepticism that democratic criteria were complied with on the Fancy. Viable democratic principles and processes require idealism and commitment. The Fancy’s crew, as Johnson emphasizes, consisted of savage cutthroats; I think it unlikely that they were devoted to maintaining a seaborne democratic paradise. (At the trial, one of the defendants accused a shipmate of stealing his share of the loot.) As for being the “vanguard of a new, more . . . democratic social order,” I find it impossible to conceive of Every and his colleagues as precursors of Edmund Burke (Burke and Hare are more like it). Johnson also argues that the pursuit of Every and his fellow thugs was “a preview of coming attractions — the forerunner of the hunt for modern ‘enemies of all mankind’ like Osama bin Laden.” Again, I take exception to this. The hunt for bin Laden was a locus of religion, terrorism, intelligence gathering, technology, realpolitik, constitutional jurisprudence. The Every hue and cry was a shabby business deal.

What I found most interesting in Enemy of All Mankind is something that its author either overlooked or was indifferent to: the similarities between Every’s brutal piracy and the East India Company’s history of shameful (and shameless) machinations. (Granted what I am about to cite mostly occurred after the events depicted in this book. But still — Johnson encourages our interest in templates.) I admit to finding the cheeky intrigues, tactics, and hubris of the company fascinating (at the height of its influence, its operations reached into India, which it mostly controlled, China, Hong Kong, and the Middle Eastern Gulf, and it carried out half of the world’s trade: cotton, silk, salt, spices, tea, opium, etc.), but I must also acknowledge that a lot of its behavior through the years was reprehensible. It was involved in the slave trade for over two centuries. It smuggled opium into China. It smuggled tea seeds and tea-growing techniques out of China. (For a good account of how the Honourable Company deviously and ruthlessly snookered China in this venture, see Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China.) During the Indian Mutiny of 1857–8 (the conflict that finally destroyed the organization’s power), the company’s army (yes, it had its own army in India; and it produced its own currency) committed atrocities against civilians.

A modicum of knowledge about the annals of the East India Company reinforces the real takeaway from Enemy of All Mankind: If you’re going to implement unscrupulous enterprises, do it on a grand scale, do it under color of law, and, most important, exploit the requisite governments.

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Politics & Policy

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On the menu today: Another reminder that “People of Praise” and “People of Hope” are not the same group, and proof that “People of Hope” did not inspire Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; wondering what Joe Biden is doing with his time these days; and two Senate committees release their ... Read More