Ten Improbable Minutes At Sea That Changed The Course Of History

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September 11, 1695
The Indian Ocean, West of Surat

On a clear day, the lookout perched atop the forty-foot mainmast of the Mughal treasure ship can see almost ten miles before hitting the visual limits of the horizon line. But it is late summer, in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean; the humidity lingering in the air draws a hazy curtain across the spyglass lens. And so by the time the English vessel comes into focus, she is only five miles away.

The existence of an English ship in these waters is hardly noteworthy. They are only a few days’ sail from Surat, one of India’s most prosperous port cities, and the original headquarters of the East India Company. At first sight, the lookout doesn’t even think it necessary to sound an alarm. Yet as the seconds pass, as the blurred shape of the boat looms in the spyglass, something catches his attention in the approaching vessel: not her colors, but her speed in the water. The ship is in full sail, he can see now, running before the wind. And she is moving fast, at least ten knots, maybe more — easily twice the top speed of the treasure ship. …


Steven Johnson

Writer. 12 books. (The latest: Enemy of All Mankind.) Host, American Innovations, Fighting Coronavirus, How We Got To Now. Three kids, one wife. Brooklyn/Marin.

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