Real pirates don’t wear eyeliner. They don’t have theme-park rides named after them. Real pirates, such as the notorious 17th-century Englishman Henry Every, endured scurvy, venereal disease, thirst and hunger. They traded in slaves, employed torture, engaged in sexual battery. Their lives were, quoting Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish and short.”
One trait they did share with a Johnny Depp-style pirate: their ability to capture the popular imagination.
This “pirate mythos” was especially strong in the case of Every, Steven Johnson argues in “Enemy of All Mankind,” a fascinating, connect-the-dots history. There was Every’s boldness of plan, sailing a stolen British vessel 6,000 miles to attack a huge treasure ship loaded with wealthy Muslim pilgrims returning to India. Horrific details of rape and pillage fanned the flames.
Every’s world-class crime (his crew’s take is estimated at $20 million in today’s dollars) was amplified (and distorted) by early popular media: broadsheets, songs, poems, newspapers. Londoners in the late 1690s stayed current on Every’s exploits, sometimes hearing them sung about by street corner balladmongers.
Every’s raid on the Indian ship was a “nexus, one of those rare moments where multiple long arcs collide in spectacular fashion.”
One very long arc, which gets its own chapter, involves protracted wars of empire that led to five centuries of Islamic control of the Hindu subcontinent. Another is global trade, as the East India Company, fattened on profits from importing Indian goods to England, grew into a powerful multinational corporation.
Sparking those slow historic developments in September 1695 was the pirate Every. Many biographical details about him — his date of birth, his humble childhood on the southern coast of England, the circumstances of his death — remain foggy.
But some are known. Every joined the Royal Navy as a teenager. Early on, he joined British efforts against the terror and scourge of the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Later, he showed up in Bermuda as a slave trader, then joined a private expedition on board a fast, new, 46-gun British ship named Charles II that he eventually took over with a band of about 80 mutineers who were angry about lack of pay. He renamed the frigate as The Fancy.
“I am captain of this ship now,” Every announced. “I am bound to Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me.”
After enough adventures to fill a Netflix miniseries, Every hit the jackpot by attacking the Gunsway, a huge passenger vessel owned by India’s super-rich Grand Mughal Aurangzeb. The pirates were outgunned and outmanned, but two strokes of good luck helped them overtake and loot the Gunsway in “one of the most lucrative heists in the history of crime.”
The attack sparked outrage. Every sailed off, leaving behind a foreign-policy crisis. The Brits offered a hefty reward to anyone who brought Every to justice. A half-dozen Fancy crew members eventually were tried in London and executed. Despite a global manhunt, Every was never captured.
In recounting Every’s story, Johnson seeks to “break out of the boundaries of period histories and traditional biographies” so that he can show how “early microscopic causes will trigger a wave of effects that resonate around the world.” Though admittedly often reverting to conjecture and imagination to connect sometimes illegible dots, he skillfully makes sweeping historical points from bloody swashbuckling details.
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.