In 1695 the British pirate Henry Every commanding a stolen ship, one of the fastest in the world, captured the Ganj-i-Sawai an immense treasure ship carrying the granddaughter of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, from her pilgrimage to Mecca. The looting and mass rapes set off repercussions around the world.
Enemy of All Mankind is Steven Johnson’s page-turning account. I’m not fascinated by pirates per se but Johnson surrounds the narrative arc with expert historical context. Anyone can tell you that cotton was important in trade between India and Europe but you would be hard-pressed to find a more concise account of why than Johnson’s primer. What made Indian cotton unique wasn’t the cotton but Indian chemical engineering.
What made Indian cotton unique was not the threads themselves, but rather their color. Making cotton fiber receptive to vibrant dyes like madder, henna, or turmeric was less a matter of inventing mechanical contraptions as it was dreaming up chemical experiments. The waxy cellulose of the cotton fiber naturally repels vegetable dyes….The process of transforming cotton into a fabric that can by dyed with shades other than indigo is known as “animalizing” the fiber, presumably because so much of it involves excretions from ordinary farm animals. First, dyes would bleach the fiber with sour milk; then they attacked it with a range of protein-heavy substances: goat urine, camel dung, blood. Metallic salts were then combined with the dyes to create a mordant that permeated the core of the fiber.
…The result was a [soft] fabric that could both display brilliant patterns of color and retain that color after multiple washings. No fabric in human history had combined those properties into a single cloth.
Lots of other insights. Every, by the way, was never captured but in 2014 a Yemeni coin that might have come from the Ganj-i-Sawai was found in a Rhode Island orchard.
See also my previous post on Enemy of All Mankind.