The Weekend Australian - Review

The most suc­cess­ful pi­rate of all time

- Pat Sheil Pirates · Crime · Calico · Henry Every · Board of Directors of the East India Company · India · Royal Navy · Royal Navy · Robin Hood · Ned Kelly · Charles II of England · Blackbeard · Calico Jack

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.

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