The Heist: A Review of Enemy of All Mankind, by Steven Johnson

The nature of pirates and piracy in popular culture has enjoyed a romanticization beyond nearly any other historical group of individuals.  We know many of their names, from Blackbeard to Anne Bonny, and when they appear in movies, television shows, and novels, they are portrayed as free men and women of the sea.  Believing in democracy and freedom and fighting against the tyranny of England and the other empires of the time.  For the epitome of this effect, look no farther than Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  First seen as morally grey, he is quickly changed to have a heart of gold.  Even the villain of the first film quickly becomes one of its central heroes.  However, historical pirates enjoyed a well-earned notoriety upon the high seas, and Steven Johnson’s Enemy of Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt goes through great pains to disassemble these myths and portray the most successful pirate of the Golden Age as he truly was.

The subject of Johnson’s excellent true history is Henry Every, captain of the Fancy and the pirate who led the single most successful nautical heist of all time and went on the inspire a generation of pirates.  Despite the pirates of the Caribbean ocean occupying much of the public’s attention, both in the present and past, Every was actually active in the expanse of the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and India itself.  Part of a piratical generation known as the Red Sea Men, Henry Every, like many others, saw the vast treasured of the Mughal Empire and went to seek their fortunes.  As Johnson’s book makes clear, very little is known about Every the man.  He only exists in the historical record for a scant few years, first serving on the ship he would later rechristen the Fancy after leading a successful mutiny and turning pirate.  We do not know where he was born in England, or where he worked before, although records suggest that he did operate as a slaver for some time.  After turning pirate, he sacked several small ships to recruit men and keep his crew motivated, always keeping his eye on the wealth of the Mughals.  His plans would eventually bear fruit after successfully capturing the Ganj-i-sawai, better known as the Gunsway in England.  No one knows for certain how much money Every and his men walked away with, but the most conservative estimates place it at $20 million in modern day currency.  Enemy of All Mankind tracks the lead up to the heist, as well as the fall out and Every’s quick disappearance from the historical record.

Enemy of All Mankind quickly establishes that the history of Henry Every’s heist belongs to more people than just him and his crew.  In fact, after a fantastic opening where the author imagines what the brief naval battle must have looked and felt like, the book quickly pivots to build up the other major two actors in the story.  The British East India Company, the world’s first joint-stockholder company with exclusive rights to trade with India, and the Mughal Empire, the Muslim empire that controlled India at the time and was widely seen as the wealthiest nation on the planet for hundreds of years.  Less than one hundred years after Every sacked the Gunsway, their fortunes would be reversed as the East India Company took control of India, before eventually passing it onto the British crown.  India would not regain its independence until 1947 during the partition of India.  While Johnson refuses to engage in speculative fiction or alternate histories, he does make it clear that Every’s attack on the Gunsway forever altered the fates of these great powers.  It is certainly plausible, although not certain, that India may never have fallen under British control if Every’s attack had not been successful.  Johnson outlines the tensions existing between the great powers of the world, and deftly shows how England the East India Company were able to use his villainy to advance their interests tremendously.

While Enemy of All Mankind does enjoy the types of dramatic retellings that make historical books more interesting and keeps readers engaged, Johnson carefully avoids falling in the pitfall of romanticizing his subject.  That is not to he ignores this phenomenon.  In fact, the public relations persona of the pirates is a central concept in the book.  The Golden Age of Piracy arrived just as print media, magazines, and newspapers came into being and spread around the globe.  Pirates were able to control their own narrative and spread stories that both frightened and titillated readers.  For all their brutality, pirates knew that the easiest battles were the ones they never had to fight.  Once a ship saw the black sail rise, surrender was the easiest choice for all involved.  However, Every’s attack on the Gunsway is particular in history if only for the sheer, inhumane brutality he and his crew subjected the ship’s occupants to.  Johnson does not shy away from the violence, and states in no uncertain terms exactly what manner of evil the Indian crew and passengers suffered in the aftermath of the attack.  It is worth noting that the Gunsway was a merchant ship, bearing pilgrims and offerings to Mecca for the haj.  While there were soldiers onboard, it would have been notable for holding more civilians than any other ship in the world, many of them women and children.

Enemy of All Mankind is not an overly long book, but it is still a fairly comprehensive history nonetheless.  In keeping with the thesis that the heist of the Gunsway has more important effects than just the financial windfall of a single pirate crew, Henry Every does not enter his own story for nearly half the novel.  Before him, Johnson spends a great deal of timing examining just what made the Mughal Empire so important, as well as looking at the types of goods that trade with India spread throughout the world.  While everyone knows that India was the source of the spice trade, their calicos and dyed clothes were a much greater source of wealth.  Johnson also attempts to figure out why India never took a more dominant role in the world when, with their vast wealth and great empires, they could have been a major economic and colonial force.  The exact reasons are unknown, but the book suggests that the various Indian empires did not see the rest of the world as worthy of their time, paired with a teaching in Hinduism that those who traveled by sea were left out of the wheel of reincarnation.  By the time Every enters the story, the Muslim Mughal Empire controlled India, and the East India Company was on the verge of destruction.  Johnson carefully walks us through the tensions between the company and the empire and, after the heist’s conclusions, examines how the East India Company took advantage of the chaos to expand their own role in the world, all while the Mughal Empire began its eventual disintegration.

Unlike fiction, there is no satisfying conclusion to the story of Henry Every.  Rather, his fate is one of history’s great mysteries.  While many pirates were never content with their exploits and seemed to enjoy the fight as much as the treasure, Every retired not long after his successful heist.  For him, fortune was always the end goal.  Not long after he left his crew and returned home with his fortune, Every exited the historical record.  He never continued his piratical career, was never caught, and faded into anonymity in a way no other pirate had.  His disappearance has led to countless folktales about buried treasure, pirate utopias, and more.  Instead of wrapping up the end of Henry Every’s life, Enemy of All Mankind instead structures its climax around the fate of the eight men from the Fancy who were caught.  While two flipped on their companions, six eventually stood trial for piracy upon the high seas.  The chronicle of their trial is fascinating, in more ways than one, and I will not spoil it here.  However, I will mention that it combines a fledgling legal system, the massive success of the pirates’ public relations, widespread corruption within the prosecution and judges, and political machinations no pirate could have ever predicted.  Like few other men and women, Henry Every forever changed the world.

Overall, Enemy of All Mankind is an excellent book for, not just lovers of history, but lovers of pirates and their stories.  It combines the education of a nonfiction account with the riveting storytelling of fiction.  Even if you are not one for normally reading nonfiction, this is a wonderfully entertaining book regardless.  A thoroughly engaging read which knows how to hold its audience’s attention, Enemy of All Mankind is a great pandemic read.  When one can so rarely adventure out of their own home, this book allows your imagination to instead adventure upon the high seas among one of the most successful, and most brutal, pirates of all time.

Enemy of all Mankind can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 8 days

Next on the List: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots

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