The legal term hostis humani generis has historically labeled pirates as challengers of societal order—the “enemies of all mankind”—who could be dealt with by any man or nation outside the law. But these barbarians are not always foreign in nature, emerging, rather, from within existing power structures. With the rise of liberalism and global commerce, new tactics emerged to combat these encroaching threats: the law became a crucial weapon in the public sphere. Douglas Burgess and other historians have examined pirate trials, revealing their role in shaping public perception and reinforcing the control of central authorities over discourse.
In the late 17th century, the powers in London were governing their increasingly global empire by prosecuting legal technicalities against politically problematic individuals, using the trials to instigate moral panics, and then disseminating propaganda about the verdict to the far reaches of the globe. Tracing the legacy of one particular pirate reveals this strategy, still exercised today.
In 1694, off the coast of Spain, the ambitious first mate Henry Every spearheaded a mutiny aboard the Charles. He took command of the ship, rechristened it the Fancy, and charted a course down Africa’s coast to the inviting waters of Madagascar. It was there he united with other rogue crews and led an armada that even the mightiest naval convoys would come to fear.
Just weeks after the mutiny of the Charles, stories of Captain Every’s exploits had already reached England. A ballad could be heard sung throughout the English docks, purported to be composed by Every himself:
Come all you brave Boys, whose Courage is bold,
Will you venture with me, I’ll glut you with Gold?
Make haste unto Corona, a Ship you will find,
That’s called the Fancy, will pleasure your mind.
Captain Every is in her, and calls her his own;
He will box her about, Boys, before he has done:
French, Spaniard and Portuguese, the Heathen likewise,
He has made a War with them until that he dies.
Now this is the Course I intend for to steer;
My false-hearted Nation, to you I declare,
I have done thee no wrong, thou must me forgive,
The Sword shall maintain me as long as I live.
Few figures in history are as enigmatic and captivating as Henry Every. Was he a swashbuckling Robin Hood of the high seas or a bloodthirsty pirate? It depended on who you asked.
In truth, London’s downtrodden had every reason to revere a pirate. Merchant sailors could expect annual wages of up to £33, a modest sum given the price of beef was £0.2 per pound. The less fortunate might be seized by press gangs, conscripting them into naval service for around a meager £15 per year. With voyages to the West Indies often seeing half the crew perish and captains infamously mistreating their men, life aboard a Navy ship was perilous. Despite these dire conditions, the sea’s promise of opportunity still drew many into its violent embrace.
It was in these conditions that Henry Every ascended. After wages were withheld from the crew, he awakened the captain of the Charles with an offer:
“Come, don’t be in a fright, but put on your clothes, and I’ll let you into a secret. You must know that I am Captain of this ship now, and this is my cabin, therefore you must walk out. I am bound to Madagascar, with a design of making my own fortune, and that of all the brave fellows joined with me…if you have a mind to make one of us, we will receive you, and if you’ll turn sober, and mind your business, perhaps in time I may make you one of my Lieutenants, if not, here’s a boat alongside and you shall be set ashore.”
For many, to be a sailor under the boot of the establishment was no life at all. But a pirate’s life promised something different. Shared plunder, rudimentary insurance, a vote—things unattainable to most. They saw these men as embodying the essence of freedom, taking what they want and living as they will. Every was such a man; a myth was born.
A Magnum Opus of Piracy
From the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the year 1694, the silhouette of the Gunsway emerged, celebrated not only for its vast riches but also for its illustrious passengers. Among them were members of the court of the esteemed Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, allegedly including one of his cherished daughters. Laden with treasures of all kinds, the ship was on its return from Mecca, a sacred voyage soon to be dramatically interrupted.
The Gunsway (also known as the “Ganj-i-Sawai”) was a vessel to be reckoned with. Its reputation deterred all but Every and his intrepid crew, themselves flying English colors at the time. Legend tells that the Fancy was outgunned and outnumbered, yet, in the initial clash, a devastating shot cleaved the Gunsway’s central mast. As it tried to retaliate, disaster struck—one of the cannons backfired catastrophically. Fate favored Every. Days later, the ship limped into Surat, its riches plundered but carrying a story that would resonate from the Peacock Throne to the corridors of Whitehall.
Word of Every’s pirating of the Gunsway wouldn’t reach London until late 1695. By then, the Mughal emperor had nearly expelled English interests on the subcontinent, almost severing the valuable trade relationships that filled the coffers of governing elites. Aurangzeb’s rage was only quelled by a promise from East India Company officials to make financial amends, provide security for future pilgrimages, and, most notably, revenge: the English would capture, convict, and hang Every and his crew to demonstrate that they were not a “nation of pirates.”
The first letters detailing the event arrived to the Lords of Trade, then colonial overseers for the English throne, in a fit of panic. In the spring of 1696, the newly established Board of Trade, an evolved bureaucratic entity emerging from its more aristocratic forerunner, took decisive action, eager to demonstrate its effectiveness and purpose. However, a mix of interests—the East India Company, the Admiralty, and the Board of Trade, its governors and subjects—made up a mirage of a unified “force” to hunt Every down. In another letter, an East India Company official stationed in India would write that, though they sought to capture Every in their waters, it was likely he had already sailed west—that Every was now an international problem.
The solution to the issue of alignment was a royal decree. The Board of Trade would draft the following pronouncement for King William III on August 10, 1696:
“…And We do hereby Charge and Command all His Majesties Admirals, Captains, and other Officers at Sea, and all His Majesties Governours and Commanders of any Forts, Castles, or other Places in His Majesties Plantations, or otherwise, to Seize and Take the said Henry Every, and such as are with him in the said Ship, and cause them to be punished as Pirates upon the High Seas, and in case of Resistance to Sink and Destroy the said Ship.”
This was a declaration nigh universal in scope, harking back to law from Roman times first uttered by Cicero. Captain Every and his crew were hostis humani generis—enemies of all mankind. A global manhunt commenced.
English authorities pursued Every’s crew worldwide, but it was the Mayo County police in Ireland who made the first significant find, arresting eight crew members attempting to return home. Keen to quickly placate the disgruntled Emperor Aurangzeb, English authorities organized a unique trial under Admiralty jurisdiction at the Old Bailey, open to the public and featuring a civilian jury as outlined in the Magna Carta. In the words of Douglas Burgess, “it was not enough to merely do justice, but to appear to do so, thus satisfying the historical record.”
The trial of Every’s captured crew held two core purposes: to gather information on the whereabouts of the remainder of Captain Every’s crew as well as the extent of broader piracy, and to demonstrate the Crown’s disapproval of such acts through trial, evidence, and conviction. Put simply, it would etch the defining narrative of piracy into law. However, as this was still a jury trial, the Crown had to convince twelve commoners that this narrative was true.
The early ballads sung of Henry Every echoed older tales of “noble” pirates like Henry Morgan or Sir Francis Drake. These private individuals had been commissioned to disrupt commerce on behalf of the Kingdom of England against its rivals in the New World, most notably the Spanish Empire. From the English Crown’s perspective, they were legitimate privateers. From the Spanish Crown’s perspective, these were pirates who terrorized civilians and further revealed the Kingdom of England as enabling lawlessness to gain naval advantage. The English Crown ultimately won both the imperial struggle and the international propaganda war, all the while keeping to this self-serving—if consistent—interpretation of its own policies. These men’s exploits, no doubt heroic in stature, were then further mythologized and proceeded to capture the hearts and minds of common folk. After all, such captains sailed English colors and only ransacked other nations.
The older tales that sang these privateers’ praises were not just historical memory and folk heritage but amounted to unexploded ordnance left over from a propaganda war against the Spanish Empire. Crimes committed by Henry Every a world away against a people they had never met were of no concern to most; in fact, the more foreign, all the more resolute and adventurous. The Crown’s view of Every as a geopolitical disaster was far from the archetype in the minds of regular people. A guilty verdict would not be so simple.
The Henry Every Trials
On October 19, 1696, six members of Captain Every’s crew, including quartermaster Joseph Dawson, were escorted into the Old Bailey courthouse. Presiding over the event was a mix of Admiralty and civil judicial leadership—a carefully crafted spectacle to give weight to the impending verdict and the newly-established piracy narrative.
But the trial did not go as planned.
Sir Robert Newton, the chief prosecutor, chose to frame the crime in terms of the state’s interests, warning the jury of the consequences of upsetting the Mughal Empire and “the total loss of Indian trade, and thereby the impoverishment of this kingdom.” The resulting trial consisted of a detailed recount of Every’s exploits, from the first mutiny of the Charles, to the ravaging of the Gunsway and its crew, to the fencing of their goods in the Americas and a backwater in the Bahamian archipelago known as New Providence Island. Such detailed stories must have instilled confidence in the Crown’s position, yet—shockingly—when the jury returned from deliberations, all were acquitted. This was, no doubt, devastating to the English establishment.
Not only had the English Crown failed to demonstrate its condemnation of piracy, but it had also inadvertently brought to light the true extent of pirate support in the colonies. What’s more, the jury’s verdict showed broader support for piracy across even the masses in England. Douglas Burgess would write: “Newton had tried to depict the Every piracies in one nationalistic light; the jury responded with a different, older variety.” The folk-hero pirate had triumphed over the bloodthirsty one; this simply could not stand.
Such a legal disaster required the attention of the Chief Justice of the Admiralty, Sir Charles Hedges. He and his team would spend days reviewing the case in an effort to find an error or new charges to levy, ultimately exercising a rather lacking reverence for the spirit of the law. Avoiding double jeopardy, the state would instead focus a new set of crimes on the initial mutiny aboard the Charles, framing the incident as an act of “sea robbery.”
This served two important purposes. First, a mutiny alone would not adequately demonstrate the state’s “condemning of piracy.” A mutiny was a rather common crime at sea; the charge needed a meaningful connection to piracy—a “sea robbery” sufficed. Second, it was clear that common folk cared little for the state’s interests or trade relationships, so framing the crime as a more relatable act of robbery would be a more compelling prosecutorial narrative: “these men did not commit a crime against the Mughal Empire, but a crime against the English people.” Though even with time to plan, the second trial still contained a series of questionable exchanges. Notably, the new indictments sounded suspiciously like the ones Every’s crew had just been found “not guilty” of:
Clerk of Arraignment: “How say’st thou, W. Bishop, art thou guilty, or not guilty?”
Bishop: “I desire to hear the whole Indictment read again.”
Justice Holt: “You have heard it, just now, and may hear it again if you desire it.”
Bishop: “The former Indictment.”
Justice Holt: “No, there is no occasion for that, This is an Indictment for a Fact distinct from that.”
Clerk of Arraignment: “This is a New Indictment, not the old one. Art thou guilty of this Pyracy and Robbery, or not guilty?’
Bishop: “Not guilty.”
Clerk of Arraignment: “How say’st thou, Joseph Dawson, art thou Guilty of this Piracy and Robbery, or Not guilty?”
Joseph Dawson: “I am ignorant of the Proceedings.”
Officer: “He pleads Ignorance.”
Clerk of Arraignment: “You must plead Guilty, or Not guilty.”
Joseph Dawson: “Guilty.”
And perhaps most bemusingly, an exchange where a defendant rightfully questions the validity of the testimony of another soon-to-be-tried pirate:
Clerk of Arraignment: “Call David Creagh (who was sworn).”
Prisoner: “This man is a Prisoner for Pyracy, my Lord.”
L.C.J. Holt: “What if he be?”
Prisoner: “I do not understand Law; I hope your Lordship will advise us.”
L.C.J. Holt: “I will do you all right. If he be so, that is no Objection against him; he may be a good Witness for all that.”
Clerk of Arraignment: “He is not a Prisoner for Pyracy, but for Treason.”
L.C.J. Holt: “Tho he be a Prisoner for Treason, he is not Attainted. What is his Name?”
Clerk of Arraignment: “David Creagh.”
This second trial was also unique in yet another regard. In many instances, presiding justices would speak less at trial participants and more at the not-present, broader public. Long-winded descriptions and opinionated tirades make up large portions of the trial. Of course, this was on purpose—they required both justice and a defining narrative with condemnation of piracy. The trial itself was merely a stage to set it in legal stone.
Unsurprisingly, the second trial delivered a guilty verdict, and all the men were hanged at Execution Dock. Soon after, the Crown quickly got to work spreading the message. Authorities commissioned publishers in London to distribute copies of the trial record and deliver them across the growing colonial empire. Interestingly, the first trial was virtually expunged from the records, only making a brief mention in the preface of the second trial publication. But this absence was of little concern to the public’s appetite. Everyone knew the legend of Henry Every—he was the most wanted man alive—and many were nonetheless fascinated by the full, legal account of his exploits. This was not the decisive victory authorities hoped for.
Readers of the trial record would be regaled by stories of Captain Every, his crew, and the mechanisms of piracy across the Indian Ocean and the New World. It made for compelling stories that could be retold. It was also clear that these supposed pirates were not even convicted for their most famous act against the Gunsway but of the far mundane crime of “sea robbery” against the Charles. Put simply, it provided savory details of adventure, with little direct punishment for the pivotal act that made them famous. Burress explains: “The one undisputed effect of publishing the Every case might well have been the opposite of what the Crown had intended: for the first time, both the English public and the colonies had a complete account of the full extent of English piracy. Far from discrediting the notion that England was a nation of pirates, the trial seemed to reinforce it.”
Two of Every’s men captured in Ireland acted as witnesses for the trial, providing shocking details of colonial complacency and outright friendliness to pirates. After taking down the Gunsway, it was said that Captain Every set sail for the Bahamas, where he had heard a governor willing to do business with pirates awaited him. He arrived to find the man recently deposed for this exact offense; a brief letter and bribe were all it took to compel the new governor, Nicholas Trott, to let Captain Every trade his goods, sell his vessel, and disperse his crew.
Not only were colonies willing to do business with pirates, but it would become clear that they were actively sheltering them. One of the defendants would mention that he was “compelled” into service and that he had presented himself as a known pirate to local magistrates in the Bahamas and Virginia to no effect. Both colonies refrained from notifying any other authorities, knowing full well the extent of the global manhunt for Captain Every and his crew.
Similar incriminations, though less tangible, incurred strident letters from the Board of Trade to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and the Carolinas. And in a personal letter to Robert Houblon, the wealthy financier and previous owner of the Charles, a dismayed witness reported hearing several of Every’s sailors in a Philadelphia tavern vividly recounting their alleged capture of an Indian princess and hordes of treasure. “They openly brag about it over their cups,” the colonist remarked with evident disdain.
The Myth Evolves
A successful conviction legally proved the state’s narrative, but it did little to change the public’s opinion. However, it did set the foundation for later trials—no longer would they underestimate the popular appeal of pirates. Towards this end, parliament passed the Piracy Act in 1698, effectively streamlining piracy trials and allowing them to occur anywhere—even at sea—not just the complex admiralty courts in England.
Just a few years later, the infamous 1701 trial of Captain William Kidd, a Scottish privateer, would be a far more deliberate exercise of power. Aware of the Board of Trade’s hardened perspective on piracy in the Atlantic, Governor Bellomont of New York, Kidd’s former backer, would betray him and send him to England in chains. Kidd was allocated funds by the Admiralty for his defense but received no legal counsel until the trial’s morning due to money being “misplaced.” With only a brief consultation before prosecution began, he was taken aback when charged with murder; he was found guilty and hanged at Execution Dock. It was then, and is today, politically precarious and thus personally dangerous to run a private military company; today’s patriotic hero might become tomorrow’s enemy of the state.
In that same year, the Crown offered a pardon to all pirates who renounced their illicit trade, with the sole exception being Henry Every. The pirate problem was growing fast, and the establishment sought immediate solutions; the myth of Henry Every was a chief culprit. Despite the might of the Crown against him, Captain Every would never be caught nor heard from again. A myth dissolved into the ocean mist, echoed only in salty hulls and candle-lit taverns across the seven seas, spat by rum-drenched breath.
Stories of Henry Every would evolve into the early 18th century. In 1709, Captain Adrian van Broek published The Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery. In this tale, Every is depicted as a noble adventurer who falls in love with and marries the Indian princess aboard the Gunsway. He then returns to Madagascar and is elected king by his crew and the native inhabitants. Soon after, the famous playwright Charles Johnson wrote The Successful Pyrate, accentuating a fictional account of Henry Every’s life as king and empire-builder in Madagascar. While no pictures of him were ever produced, images in historical texts show a regal captain draped in military garb or a gentleman’s wig, a common sailor now romanticized as a cunning king.
Libertalia, this apocryphal anchorage of Every’s in Madagascar, would emerge as a place where, according to legend, “every man was born free, and had as much right to what would support him, as to the air he respired.” Composed of men said to be “vigilant guardians of the people’s rights and liberties,” standing steadfast as “barriers against the rich and powerful.” The story of a man who defied London and helped build this paradise would inspire a new generation of pirates.
Raised by the stories of Henry Every, young sailors displayed a heightened individualism and appetite for adventure, emphasizing the exalted liberty of the myths that inspired them. In 1715, a Spanish treasure fleet carrying precious metals from the Americas to Spain was struck by a hurricane and sunk off the coast of present-day St. Augustine, Florida. Gold and silver coins were strewn across the warm, shallow waters, beckoning pirate crews and greedy sailors from all around to plunder. However, Spain was a major power in this region, and few authorities wished to incur their wrath by welcoming this stolen wealth for trade—that is, except New Providence, in the Bahamas.
Pirates knew this place well—the Bahamian anchorage of the famed Henry Every would once again make a safe harbor for magnificent riches. Quickly, the town of Nassau on the island of New Providence would balloon into the thousands and dominate local trade, becoming a hotbed of piracy in the West Indies. In the words of the pirate Thomas Barrow, Nassau was a “second Madagascar” and perhaps even a real Libertalia. It would be led by a group of captains known as the Flying Gang, consisting of famous pirates like Stede Bonnet, Anne Bonny, Samuel Bellamy, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane, Mary Read, Henry Jennings, Benjamin Hornigold, and Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, who ruled as chief magistrate and enforcer of the law.
This was their Republic of Pirates, and they lived by a strict code. Captains had absolute power while in conflict, but the decisions on navigation, choice of target, and methods of punishment were put to vote. Crews also thrived under a relatively flat structure—captains only received around 50% more loot than the common deckhand, ate the same food, and had largely the same living conditions as the rest of the crew. To ensure this, the quartermaster would oversee any disputes, notably a vote to oust the captain if necessary. Of course, this was far different than an alternative life on merchant or navy ships.
As Nassau grew in power and the local administrators of New Providence became rich with ill-gotten wealth, the now-British establishment grew increasingly concerned. A man named Woodes Rogers would provide a ready solution.
Rogers was the son of a wealthy merchant captain and had become famous after printing his captain’s logs from an around-the-world voyage. Most famously, his writings included the discovery of the castaway Alexander Selkirk on a small island off the coast of South America, believed to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In an attempt to solidify his legacy as a noble seaman, Rogers broached funding for an expedition to Madagascar—in part inspired by the legend of Henry Every—to rid it of piracy, only to find that the island’s remaining sailors had assimilated with the natives and posed little threat to trade in the region. Upon returning home to England, Rogers learned of the Crown’s pain regarding Nassau and sought to be their savior. In 1715, he would be named Governor of the Bahamas and receive a small fleet to squash the pirate’s nest.
With him, Rogers would carry the King’s Pardon for any who would give up piracy. Arriving in Nassau in 1718, a series of firefights with members of the Flying Gang would ultimately yield surrender—as well as some notable pirate betrayals. By 1719, the Republic of Pirates in Nassau had fallen, and the Golden Age of Piracy ended, now civilized by the British Empire.
The Birth of the Public Enemy
Recognizing the extent of piracy in the Americas, the Board of Trade enacted the Navigation Acts of 1696, establishing vice-admiralty courts for trying piracy in the colonies. Though this would be struck down by none other than Sir Charles Hedges, who oversaw the Every trials, it was soon re-established under common law. Continually displeased with colonial reluctance to prosecute piracy, the Board of Trade also pushed forward a Reunification bill that threatened to bring all territories back under royal rule, if passed. Historian P. Bradley Nutting would state that “charter government, piracy, and the India trade” were the key reasons for such a policy attempt and that the trial of Henry Every’s crew is what made these issues apparent.
Once noble privateers in the vein of Sir Francis Drake, these seafarers transformed into formidable threats, instilling fear in even the mightiest of nations. The emergence of the Board of Trade in the mid-1690s saw a newfound bureaucratic purpose clash with the man and myth of Henry Every. Piracy, now, was a state problem that disrupted growing commerce and colonial development. As maritime trade became increasingly crucial, unchecked pirates posed a threat to national vitality, far beyond mere “sea robbery.”
Nevertheless, the English public—the world’s public, for that matter—viewed such figures as heroes. This was fine when they served the state’s interests in chaotic times, but leading into the end of the War of Spanish Succession that brought peace in 1713, legal naval “targets” began to disappear. What remained, however, were able maritime marauders now out of work and traders willing to look the other way, particularly at the edges of the British Empire. Privateers turned into pirates.
During the waning years of the Golden Age of Piracy in the late 1710s, attacks on American merchant ships increasingly impacted colonial commoners who relied on maritime trade for their livelihoods, dramatically shifting sentiment. Over two decades after the trials of Henry Every’s crew and independent of the Crown’s legal campaign, public condemnation of piracy began to emerge.
What we see with the story of Henry Every and the trials of his crew is a pivotal moment in the conflict between the interests of the state and of commoners. Critically, under classical liberalism, law is revered as a god, yet it can still be weaponized via procedure. There is much wiggle room for those with the means and power to bend the system. We see this clearly in the trial of Every’s crew and the pirates convicted soon after them. Unable to achieve the economically, diplomatically, and politically necessary goals of the state through formal means, the state simply obviated those formal means with reinterpretations of the law and public messaging campaigns.
Such success in soft power was, however, often just a prelude to hard power, not its replacement. Great Britain was indeed a “nation of pirates,” and the authorities’ failures in setting the new pirate narrative forced them to quash such insolence with increasing aggression, particularly in the early 18th century as pirates began hunting vessels with reckless abandon and little concern for commerce.
The sanctioned barbarism of privateering turned against the establishment and, when pushed, attempted their own self-rule at the outskirts of the empire. There were practical reasons why ordinary people or even colonial governors might support pirates, which more distant authorities often overlooked or exacerbated with increased oversight and control. While officials successfully extinguished the Pirate Republic in Nassau, they couldn’t stop the burgeoning act of civil disobedience demonstrated by the American colonies‘ sheltering of pirates, an early sign of rebellion that would later engulf the Atlantic in 1776. Both of these insurrections were “illegal” and required military intervention, but only one was long-term, materially successful—in both the battlefield and the court of public opinion.
The accuracy of the myths surrounding Captain Every and later pirates are questionable. Such men undoubtedly committed terrible acts at the expense of the life and property of fellow man. These stories aren’t morality plays; they are rather myths of resisting state authority, told and retold in literature and eventually film long after their original political context vanished from relevance. The myths remain political liabilities as they were when they first arose, and they demonstrate how profoundly an attempt to engineer public opinion and legal procedure—even to achieve a moral victory—can backfire, then and today.