Perhaps, like me, you have found that when authors write about obscure historical figures, their work becomes more a history of the era than an actual biography. Steven Johnson’s Enemy of All Mankind is one such book. It’s subtitle is A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt.
“Oooh,” I thought, “a swashbuckling tale!”
How wrong could I be! The enticing title masks a dryly academic piece of work. The research and analysis and writing are all excellent, but unless you are seriously interested in the seventeenth century political history of Great Britain and India (The East India Company) you might want to skip this one.
The eponymous pirate was called Henry Every, although even his name has been the subject of debate. He was born in 1659 in a small port city in England and grew up to become an honest sailor. He signed on to a merchant ship called Charles II which ran into administrative trouble at a port in Spain. The crew was not being paid, so they mutinied, took over the ship, renamed it the Fancy, and, led by their elected captain Henry Every, sailed off into a life of piracy.
Their biggest heist was from the huge treasure-laden ship belonging to the Grand Mughal of India. It was returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca and had aboard many members of the Mughal’s court. The passengers’ status did not deter atrocities committed upon them.
During his day, Every was celebrated as one of the few pirates that got away with his loot. Some of his crew were captured and brought to trial in London, but, as for Every, he escaped capure and died in a time and place unknown.
In spite of my craving for some piratical blood and guts, I continued to plough though the book and picked up some interesting concepts. The first thing was how democratically life on the ship was ruled. All pirates signed on to a document called “Articles of Agreement” and all had a vote in the ship’s affairs. The agreement also spelled out how loot was to be divided among them; it was an equal split with a little more to the captain and the quartermaster.
Crew members of the Fancy were harshly biased against Muslims, but they seemed to have worked well as a racially mixed group. “As working members of the crew, the African pirates would have participated in all the proto-democratic conventions of the pirate collective, which made the pirate ships of the golden age the first Western institution to extend suffrage to people of color.”
Having Africans for crew members made a strange situation when the Fancy engaged in slave trading. There would have been African sailors on deck when there were Africans in chains down in the hold. Because of their national history, Americans see slavery as a white versus black phenomenon; but the world has seen people of all colors become sometimes perpetrators and sometimes victims of slavery.