Conventional wisdom holds that it was not until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that Britain’s course to ruling India was set
In the Indian Ocean in September 1695, an English frigate approached a well-armed treasure ship laden with precious metals, gems, and spices. The frigate's captain was Henry Every, a notorious English pirate. The treasure ship belonged to Aurangzeb, ruler of the Mughal Empire and one of the most powerful men on Earth. Every was outmanned and outgunned in almost all respects, but he and his not-so-merry band of pirates nonetheless succeeded in disabling and capturing Aurangzeb's ship. The daring raid set in motion a chain of events that transformed the British Empire, enabled its hold on India, and laid the foundation for modern trade.
Every's voyage is one of those rare examples where scholars can trace a key inflection point in history back to a single place and time. Steven Johnson maps out this little-studied moment, its aftermath, and the repercussions in his compelling page turner Enemy of All Mankind.
Every's raid on Aurangzeb's treasure ship became the most notorious crime in its day—not least because the ship was also carrying women, including members of the royal court and possibly one of the ruler's daughters. Returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, the women met a grimmer fate than many of the surviving men on board. The crime sparked the first global manhunt and an existential crisis for England's East India Company, then nearing its centenary and faltering. Caught between a backlash in London and the furious Aurangzeb, the company's managers managed to seize the crisis as an opportunity to reset relations with both the Mughal Empire and England—a reset that would eventually turn the East India Company into the ruthless corporate and military juggernaut that subjugated the entire Indian subcontinent.
Conventional wisdom holds that it was not until the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that Britain's course to ruling India was set. But Johnson, drawing on the work of scholars before him, convincingly argues that Every's raid marks the turning point instead. It was then that the Mughal ruler first agreed to outsource the protection of his sea trade to the East India Company, the catalyst for the company to build a private military that would eventually vanquish the Nawab of Bengal at Plassey. And it was then that England's Parliament finally swore off piracy (though not privateering against rival European powers), laying the groundwork for a secure system of global trade.
Johnson's book is a fast-paced, engrossing work of narrative nonfiction. The counterfactuals he explores throughout are convincing enough to consider that the British Empire, India's history, and the world's trade system would have taken a very different course had it not been for Every's fateful pirate raid.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, covering the State Department. Before he joined FP in 2016, he managed the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, for three years. He's a graduate of American University, where he studied international relations and European affairs.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement