When Piracy Threatened the East India Company

Iwasn’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.

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