By the beginning of the 1700s, the power of the Mughal potentates who had ruled India for hundreds of years, garnering a vast wealth from the manufacture and export of spices and cotton textiles, was on the cusp of eclipse by the ruthless might of the East India Company. The first joint stock corporation in history, the company was established in 1600 to finance trade expeditions between India and England. But it gradually became a means for the English government to effectively outsource its political and economic influence in India, and it was through the company’s private military forces that the British crown would, by the end of the next century, conquer and subjugate the entire subcontinent. Yet when the Fancy appeared over the horizon that day in 1695, the East India Company had still only a tenuous hold on its trade agreements with the Mughals, who allowed the company to maintain a pair of fortified settlements in Bombay and Surat only so long as it seemed in their financial interests to do so.
And when the survivors of the attack on the Ganj-i-Sawai finally arrived in Surat, the enraged Universe Conqueror and his myrmidons held the company’s local agents directly responsible for the atrocities of the pirate Every and the rogue Englishmen under his command. The governor of Surat had the company managers thrown in irons, and cut off their communication with the outside world: Not only their lives but the future of their commercial enterprise in India was threatened with extinction. It was the response to the crisis improvised by these men, and by the government back in London, that set the stage for British hegemony on the subcontinent for the next 200 years. A royal proclamation declared Every and his crew hostis humani generis — enemies of all mankind — a legal formulation that allowed the English crown to extend its jurisdiction across the high seas and launch a worldwide manhunt for the pirates. This act and the show trial that followed were among the most significant steps in the establishment of an empire built on global trade.
Deploying a structure that echoes that of his 2006 book, “The Ghost Map,” which was built around the tale of how one Victorian physician helped solve the mystery of a cholera epidemic in 1850s London, Johnson is here less interested in the story of Henry Every than in its implications, and its part in a wider meta-narrative. As a result, we are treated to often fascinating digressions on the origins of terrorism, celebrity and the tabloid media; the tricky physics of cannon manufacture; and the miserable living conditions of the average 17th-century seaman. At times, this approach proves a hindrance to being swept away by the tale of the world’s “most wanted man,” and is complicated by the thinness of the historical record and disagreement about what really happened and to whom: Much of the book is given over to debate and conjecture about what did occur. Johnson admits that we may not know where or when Every was born, what he looked like or even his real name.