The Weekend Australian - Review
The most successful pirate of all time
By Steven Johnson Riverhead, 320pp, $32.99
As always, the Romans had a word for it, or in this case, words for them: “Hostis humani generis”, which translates from the Latin to “enemies of all mankind”.
We know them best as pirates: the men (and some women) whom the Romans deemed to be the sort of villains who flout not only the laws of their own land, but violate every notion of what is deemed acceptable anywhere, at any time. Global outlaws. The worst of the worst.
Our notion of the pirate — the person, as opposed to piracy itself — has for centuries been in a state of reinvention, from the freebooting loveable rogue to the merciless murderer, the shameless thief and rapacious monster to the revolutionary freedom fighter.
In Enemy of All Mankind, American author Steven Johnson explores all these perceptions as he tells the tale of possibly the most successful pirate of all time.
He was not the notorious Sam Bellamy, Blackbeard or Calico Jack, but one Henry Every who, through sheer gall and an incredible stroke of luck, pulled off the biggest heist in the history of the high seas. And in the process, Johnson argues, despite Every’s obscure place in the folklore mythology of piracy under sail, changed the nature of international commerce.
After Every’s wildly unlikely criminal masterstroke, piracy ceased to be viewed as a tool of state naval strategy, but as a crime against business, and money always has the last word.
The East India Company, the world’s largest corporation, insisted that celebrating, indeed knighting, terrorists for annoying the Spanish and the French was not in their interests.
In India and beyond, the world had changed. Trade was king and the odd galleon was small change now. Henry Every was never going to be welcomed to the palace. The devilishly romantic, buckles-that-swash, avast-me-hearties boy’s own image of the pirate is not only a product of the movie studios, amusement park rides and penny-dreadful novels.
As Johnson points out, pirates, while outlaws, and often brutal ones at that, had a code of conduct that belies the notion of there being no honour among thieves, and one that was much celebrated in song and verse at the time.
He contends that during the 17th and 18th centuries, a pirate ship was perhaps the most democratic institution on earth, with strict rules as to the rights and obligations of the captain and everyone else aboard. Votes were taken on leadership and matters of strategy. The spoils of success were divided between the crew with scrupulous and transparent bookkeeping. This was in stark contrast to the lot of those who signed on, or were press-ganged into, the Royal Navy, and it was the cruel injustices of that institution that led to inevitable mutinies at sea, and the pirates’ portrayal in the public imagination not as cleanskin rebels like Robin Hood, but Ned Kelly-esque criminal folk heroes.
But back to Every. He was one of many who had, in the summer of 1693, signed on to “the Spanish Expedition”, a small fleet flag-shipped by the Charles II, an impressive vessel for its day, puportedly to salvage Spanish wrecks for gold and other loot.
However, the mission was essentially a commercial privateering exercise. It’s wise to remember that “privateer” was the legal term for a pirate acting in the interest, and with the covert permission, of the government of his home port. Francis Drake is the most famous of them.
The mission went broke with not a penny being salvaged or stolen, the men left starving at sea off the Spanish coast without pay and in dire circumstances. The crew of the Charles II mutinied, changed the ship’s name to the Fancy and sailed into the night.