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Book review: Sail with real pirates in ‘Enemy of All Mankind’

Steven Johnson’s new nonfiction book tells the amazing story of Henry Every, whose 17th century exploits still echo in our world.

We don’t think much about pirates, and when we do they’re watered-down versions of the real thing, inspirations for goofy movies and theme park rides and, locally, for a big family-friendly parade with the slightest naughty, noisy edge.

Steven Johnson has been thinking about pirates, though, and as usually happens when he considers a subject, he sees a world of connections. Johnson is one of those polymath writers who links events and subjects most of us wouldn’t see as related, always to enlightening effect. Host of the PBS series How We Got to Now and the podcast American Innovations, he is the author of 12 books of nonfiction. His 2006 book, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, is certainly of renewed interest these days.

But his new book, Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt, is just as intriguing, and just as relevant to our own world. Johnson doesn’t just write about the heyday of piracy; he connects it to the growth of nation-states, the history of the first multinational corporation, the origins of democracy and the birth of the tabloid media, among other things.

Steven Johnson's latest nonfiction book is "Enemy of All Mankind." [ Nutopia Ltd. ]

Enemy of All Mankind centers on the story of a 17th century British pirate named Henry Every. Historical records of Every’s life are sparse, which Johnson calls “fitting”: “All the great legends have palimpsest narratives of their origins, different plots layered and threaded through rumor and hearsay.”

Every became legend, and inspired generations of pirates after him that included Blackbeard, Samuel Bellamy and Calico Jack, by committing one spectacularly successful act of piracy — and then disappearing.

Every was born sometime in the mid 17th century in Devonshire, home of “almost all of the legendary sea dogs of the Elizabethan age,” including Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake. When we pretend to talk like a pirate today, Johnson writes, those “arrs” and shivered timbers are “unconsciously mimicking the lilt and idiosyncratic grammar of West Country-vernacular English.”

In Every’s childhood, the feared Barbary pirates often raided coastal villages in England and Ireland, capturing the residents to sell as slaves in North Africa. But he would also have heard thrilling stories of the adventures and riches of Raleigh and Drake, who were privateers — essentially pirates with a license from their queen.

At some point Every entered the Royal Navy, either voluntarily or through impressment, the custom at that time of kidnapping young men off the streets to serve on military ships. He did a brief stint as a slave trader in the employ of the governor of Bermuda, then in 1693 he signed on as first mate of a new, extraordinarily fast, 46-gun sailing ship, the Charles II. It was part of a fleet called the Spanish Expedition, assembled by a London investor to salvage treasure from sunken ships in the Caribbean Sea.

Every’s pirate career began when, in May of 1694, he led a mutiny by the crew of the Charles II, changed the name of the ship to the Fancy and changed its course for the Indian Ocean.

Johnson expands from Every’s origins in England to his place in the wider global era. Britain had not yet become an empire, but the East India Company was arguably farther along the road to such power. The British company, founded in 1600, was the first multinational corporation and the first one to be stock-based and funded by shareholders. It also had its own standing army. “Perhaps the best way to think about it,” Johnson writes, “is that England outsourced the problem — and the opportunity — of India to a private subcontractor.”

Johnson traces the history that made India at that time the wealthiest nation on earth, as well as its longtime relationship with the extensive trade networks of the Muslim world. The East India Company was still trying to find its own niche in that money-making machine.

So was Every. On Sept. 11, 1695, he led an attack on a massive, heavily armed ship called the Gunsway. Laden with a colossal store of gold, silver, spices, fabrics and jewels, and carrying hundreds of Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj to Mecca, it was bound for the Indian port of Surat. Its owner was Aurangzeb, the Grand Mughal, ruler of India.

Thanks in part to a series of wild coincidences, the audacious attack was successful — and set off consequences heard ‘round the world that would affect diplomacy, law, trade and more.

Every and his crew escaped on the fast Fancy, splitting the spoils equally, according to the pirate code, which gave every man a vote almost a century before the American Revolution. Reports trace Every to Ireland in 1696, and then he vanished.

Stories about him did not. Johnson writes that pirates were among the world’s first celebrities, pursuing their crimes in a “symbiotic embrace" with the then-new press because “the publishers needed stories of living hearts being torn out of chests to sell copy; the pirates needed those stories to circulate as widely as possible to instill fear in their prospective victims. The fact that the golden age of piracy coincides almost exactly with the emergence of print culture is no coincidence.”

Two narratives arose about the attack of the Gunsway. One is dark with stories of brutal torture and rape — many of the Gunsway’s passengers were women — and that narrative would become evidence when some members of Every’s crew were captured in England.

In the other narrative, a princess aboard the Gunsway, a relative of Aurangzeb, caught Every’s eye, and the princess and the pirate married. In 1709, a fictitious biography of Every was published that had him and his princess bride ruling a thriving “pirate utopia” in Madagascar.

It’s an amazing story, but the real one Johnson tells in Enemy of All Mankind is even more so.

[ Riverhead Books ]

Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt

By Steven Johnson

Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $28

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