Enemy of all Mankind|
A true story of Piracy, Power and History's first Global Manhunt
Riverhead Books, 2020, 304 pp, HC $28.00, Kindle $14.99
Not much is known about the early life of Henry Every, not even his real name as Johnson notes; his disappearance from the public eye in his later years is a mystery as well. However his pirate days and actions make him the most notorious man of his age.
September 11, 1695 a Mughal treasure ship with 80 cannons and 1000 men is overtaken by an English pirate with 119 men and through a series of statically improbable events, boarded and ransacked. Henry Every had won his bounty and created an upheaval in the geopolitical waters.
The attack on the treasure ship Ganj-i-Sawaiwas was problematic for several reasons; it held civilians, many of whom were women on their return journey from Mecca. It also held relatives of Mughal Aurangzeb, the dynastic ruler. To top this off, apart from pillaging all the gold, silver, ivory and other goods Every's men "were rapists of the worst order." Every himself may have absconded with an Indian princess, whether this part of his story is true is questionable, however, the atrocities they committed are not.
Steven Johnson's Enemy of all Mankind is a story of a pirate, but also the correlation between actions and consequences: the inexplicable cannon explosion on a Mughal ship leads to the beginning of English Colonialism in India. With Every's exploits Johnson posits that the birth of the East India Company grew into a re-defining force, as an agent of the crown it was tasked to police the seas against pirates. Johnson writes "The British occupation of India is such a defining fact of the modern age it is hard to imagine an alternate timeline. But if the story of Henry Every's life had played out differently, that occupation might not have happened at all."
Johnson also digresses into many fascinating historical view points, one of which is how the media changes public opinion. The stories of Every slanted toward the romantic. There is the tale of the Indian Princess in which it was purported that Every and the princess fell in love at first sight and were married on the spot. This obvious attempt to sell tabloids would be akin to our modern day click-bait. Moreover the tabloids had a strong influence over the jury that would eventually reside over the trial of Every's compatriots. Every never went to trial. In the first trial against Every's men they were exonerated, perhaps because in the court of public opinion, bolstered by the news stories, the pirates were seen as the hero swashbucklers we see in today's media, not the rapists and murderers they actually were.
Johnson doesn't sugar coat the evils the pirates committed, yet he also lays out the egalitarianism of their code. Of the booty they steal they each get a share, (except the captain who gets double), each man has a say in any decision made. If there are disgruntled men they can "strike sail", and have a debate, or mutiny. In the 1600's when press gangs roamed and sent teenagers on navel ships for little money this equality of voice was probably a strong motive to become a pirate. Johnson writes "To make sense of the pirates and of Henry Every most of all we have to adopt a ...split consciousness. They were heroes to the masses. They were the vanguard of a new, more equitable and democratic social order. And they were killers and rapists and thieves, enemies of all mankind."
Johnson's book is well written and detailed, the title itself derived from the Latin "Hostis Humani Generis". Johnson notes that the term was used exclusively for pirates because their crimes on the high seas were murky in the courts. The term "gave local authority on land justification to try them." Johnson also notes that in the "immediate aftermath of 9/11 the Justice Department lawyer John Yoo invoked the tradition of Hostis Humani Generis to justify the extreme treatment of enemy combatants as part of the war on terror." With this attention to detail and steeped in a history that effects us today, Enemy of the People is an engrossing read.