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The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
Beacon Press, $30 (cloth)

by Robin Blackburn

This book can be read as both an homage to, and correction of, E. P. Thompson's famous study The Making of the English Working Class (1964). Like that book, The Many-Headed Hydra is eloquent, unconventional in its sources and angle of vision, and "history from below"—it emphasizes the large historical significance of the sensibilities and conduct of ordinary people. But where Thompson described the world of British workers during the Industrial Revolution, and explored the formation of the English working class as a self-conscious political actor, this history is oceanic rather than national in scope—it is the story of the making of an Atlantic proletariat. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker are so steeped in their subject matter that they spot patterns and links that others would not notice. They evoke the bygone mentalities of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic, in ways that transport us to a world that is quite strange—yet with startling premonitions of current globalization. In his last work, Customs in Common, Thompson suggested that pre-industrial capitalism could illuminate aspects of the post-industrial era. The Many-Headed Hydra, without lapsing into anachronism, bears out this claim.

As it happens, Linebaugh and Thompson both contributed to Albion's Fatal Tree, a collection devoted to the still topical issue of capital punishment, and its meanings for the wider society, while Thompson wrote a glowing review of Rediker's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a study of eighteenth-century mariners. Yet The Many-Headed Hydra also challenges some of Thompson's Anglocentric assumptions. While Thompson was attuned to French influences and had respect for the "old Jakes" (English Jacobins), his work paid little attention to the leavening effect of Irish and transatlantic influences and connections. Thus the remarkable figures of Olaudah Equiano, the African (or African American) anti-slavery campaigner, or Robert Wedderburn, son of a Jamaican slave and a leader of the Spencean socialists in early nineteenth-century London, made only fleeting appearances in Thompson's work, but are allotted chapters here. Thompson did give space to the activities of the Irish Revolutionary Colonel Edward Despard, but he did not mention his conflicts with English proprietors in the Caribbean nor weigh the significance of his marriage to Catherine, his Afro-Caribbean wife. In Thompson, the anti-slavery movement was represented by William Wilberforce, a persecutor of Jacobins; its more radical proponents, such as Thomas Clarkson, were not discussed.

The "hidden history" that Linebaugh and Rediker refer to in their subtitle links the radical sects of England's seventeenth-century Civil War to the later emergence of the nineteenth-century labor and anti-slavery movements, a theme which builds on the suggestion of another British Marxist historian. (The Many-Headed Hydra is dedicated to Christopher and Bridget Hill, and it is from the former that the idea is taken.) In about four hundred pages, The Many-Headed Hydra covers two hundred years of history on both sides of the Atlantic. The account combines provocative and sweeping generalization with intimate individual examples of the resistance and solidarity that grew in the wake of the growth of oceanic commerce and the rise of the maritime state.

The book opens with the real-life story of an expedition that wrecked on Bermuda and prompted Shakespeare's Tempest, though Linebaugh and Rediker use the story to highlight the rebelliousness of the crew and colonists. Then they describe the evictions and hangings that were visited on the common people by the new breed of English capitalist landlord and merchant as they sought to enclose land, establish plantations, and secure "hewers of wood and drawers of water." The third chapter supplies a close reading of the tantalizing scraps of evidence available concerning the life and beliefs of "a Blackymore Maide Named Francis" who died a Baptist in Bristol in the Civil War period, and of what was meant by those, like Francis, who declared that "God was no respecter of faces." The fourth chapter is devoted to the implications of the Putney debates—the remarkable 1647 political arguments in the General Council of Cromwell's New Model Army—and explores the maritime background of Colonel Thomas Rainborough, who enunciated democratic principles at that assembly. The fifth chapter argues that the ocean-going sailing vessels of the epoch were cradle of a picaresque proletariat—mariners, rovers, and dock-workers who evolved their own distinctive traditions of struggle and solidarity, ranging from the rough-and-ready egalitarianism and democracy of the pirate crew to the practice of striking (that is, lowering the sails of the ship). The sixth chapter establishes links between a slave conspiracy in Antigua and a 1741 plot to seize power in New York hatched by John Gwin, "a fellow of suspicious character"; Negro Peg, "a notorious prostitute"; and a "motley crew" of disreputable Irish, blacks, Dutch, and other "outcasts of the nations of the earth."

The succeeding chapter on "the motley crew in the American Revolution" argues that the revolutionary radicalism of the mariners and dockworkers made a vital contribution to the ideology of the struggle for independence. For example, they prompted the young Samuel Adams to move from the rhetoric of the "rights of Englishmen" to the more universal idiom of the "rights of man." More generally, it was within the mixed, waterfront milieu that anti-slavery ideas first gained support and then influenced at least some of the Patriots. The book concludes with chapters that trace the return across the Atlantic of revolutionary aspirations as exemplified in the lives of Edward and Catherine Despard, Robert Wedderburn, and William Blake. Vignettes full of surprising detail are interspersed with bold claims for the transcontinental spirit of revolution and virtuoso exercises in parsing the sometimes-obscure rhetoric of millennial enthusiasts.

The Many-Headed Hydra repeatedly puts familiar landmarks in a new light by showing how they reflect mercantile and Atlantic constellations of class, ideology, and power. It is interesting to be reminded that among the 39 Articles that provided the Church of England's founding principles, one permitted the state to punish Christians by death (Article 37), and another insisted "the riches and goods of Christians are not in common as touching the right, title and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast" (Article 38). And the sketch of the plan of the book I have offered above fails to do justice to many learned and fascinating digressions—for example, on the adventures of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, or on the Masaniello revolt in Naples, and the ways that each illuminates the making of the maritime state and the emergence of its "hydra-headed" proletarian antagonist.

Some will say that Linebaugh and Rediker have taken hold of some venerable bones of Marxist analysis and made them sing by means of a postmodern voodoo philosophy. The authors skillfully deploy scripture, song, and poetry to give the reader a salty taste of the distinctive cultures of their "many-headed" and motley crew. But do they not romanticize? We are told that Colonel Rainborough's father, William, rescued 339 European prisoners from enslavement in North Africa and that Rainborough himself wore on his finger a signet ring bearing a Moor's head. This emboldens the authors to hail Rainborough as a champion of anti-slavery. Maybe he was. But opposition to European enslavement in Morocco and the sporting of Moor's Heads were not at all unusual in seventeenth-century England, and did not, unfortunately, betoken general opposition to slavery or an entirely favorable view of the Moor. The authors are not wrong to see in piracy opposition to the pretensions of the maritime state. But they overdo it when they flatly announce: "Pirates were class-conscious and justice-seeking, taking revenge against merchant captains who tyrannized the common seaman and against royal authorities who upheld their prerogatives to do so." Unfortunately pirates were also quite capable of trading slaves and slaughtering innocents. In fairness, I should add that there are limits to the authors' idealization of pirates: they do not endorse an improbable recent claim that buccaneers were champions of sexual enlightenment.

Nevertheless Linebaugh and Rediker are always on the lookout for rainbow coalitions of the oppressed. This does not usually lead them to gloss over inconsistencies, such as Tom Paine's fear of a union of insurgent slaves and Indians. But it does allow them to insist that Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia in 1676 was "really two quite separate uprisings," one aimed at mounting an Indian-fighting expedition and the other a challenge to the royal power that led to the freeing of servants and slaves. (Nevertheless these "quite separate" movements were both initiated by Nathaniel Bacon, and the one flowed into the other.) The authors register the scope given to the rulers to foster racial perceptions, but they are too inclined to see a spontaneous union of the oppressed and excluded waiting to emerge. They do not balance their vivid accounts of life on board ship or on the wharves with attention to the very different worlds of the slave plantation or Native American village.

I find welcome, and often persuasive, the authors' insistence that ethnic identities were often labile in this period and that the experience of a common fate aboard ship could create powerful bonds of solidarity. But I have the impression that the authors do not fully take the measure of popular complicity in the new Atlantic order, with its flood of affordable luxuries like tobacco, sugar, indigo, cacao, and so forth. Their account of the shipwreck in Bermuda does not explain how the leader of the expedition managed to restore control when the island offered land for the taking and ready means of subsistence. Shakespeare's sympathies may well have been regrettable, but his account in the Tempest of the way that plebian rebels could be sidetracked by dangling finery in front of them may not have been simply hostile caricature. Caliban is shown as possessed of better judgement when he urges his co-conspirators to shun the proffered apparel.

Here is a passage from Linebaugh and Rediker's conclusion:

… 1680-1760 witnessed the consolidation and stabilization of Atlantic capitalism through the maritime state, a financial and nautical system designed to acquire and operate Atlantic markets. The sailing ship—the characteristic machine of this period of globalization—combined features of the factory and the prison. In opposition, pirates built an autonomous, democratic, multiracial social order at sea, but this alternative way of life endangered the slave trade and was exterminated. A wave of rebellion ripped through the slave societies of the Americas in the 1730s, culminating in a multiethnic insurrectionary plot by workers in New York in 1741.

The observation concerning the sailing ship is arresting and novel, that concerning the maritime state more conventional, and the concluding flourish rhetorical. The plot of 1741 is revealed by the book to have been of broad and heartening scope. Yet it was a failure. Defeats have an undeniable pathos, yet they should not on that ground command more attention than victories.

The quoted passage continues: "In 1760-1835, the motley crew launched the age of revolution in the Atlantic, beginning with Tacky's Revolt in Jamaica and continuing in a series of uprisings throughout the hemisphere." Yet Tacky's Revolt, if scrutinized, was limited by the fact that its leaders gave it a pronouncedly Akan character, something unappealing to those from other backgrounds. During the revolt the English overseer Thomas Thistlewood took the calculated risk of arming the slaves on his plantation, and it paid off. While "history from below" has had a hugely positive impact on the writing of history, it misleads if it fails to see that power—including the power of the high and mighty—invariably rests on substructures, and distributions of load, down below on terra firma. The "continuing series of uprisings" were to have different characteristics as they mingled with such various clusters of ideas as Patriotism, Jacobinism, Free Masonry, and abolitionism, often championed by middle-class or even aristocratic revolutionaries. Indeed, it was often the campaigns and quarrels of the middling or "better sort" that gave the "motley crew" its chance. In any full account, they should receive more attention than Linebaugh and Rediker are willing to bestow upon them.

The publishers compare this book with Paul Gilroy's deservedly influential The Black Atlantic, and they are right. But the hidden Atlantic history recounted here is overwhelmingly English-speaking. The great slave uprising in Saint Domingue in 1791, the difficult alliance between black and white Jacobins in 1793, the ending of slavery in the French colonies in 1794, and the defense of this liberation against its attempted reversal by Napoleon take place off-stage. The story of the Haitian revolution has often been told, so the omission is understandable. But the role of sailors in Saint Domingue still needs to be illuminated. Moreover, following the establishment of Haiti, the wider Caribbean of the 1810s was to witness a new wave of piracy and privateering that fed into a revolt that, with the help of President Pétion, would destroy the power of Spain on the mainland. The wider Caribbean witnessed the true culmination of the heroic and fateful struggles of the picaresque proletariat so powerfully delineated by Linebaugh and Rediker.

The Many-Headed Hydra is a major work and a turning point in the new Atlantic history. It gives back to mariners their central role in the unmaking of colonialism and slavery in the Age of Revolution. And it powerfully reminds us that we owe many of the most important political ideas, such as a world without slavery, not to philosophers, still less statesmen, but to the everyday struggles of working people. •

Robin Blackburn teaches social history at the University of Essex. His books include The Making of a New World Slavery and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery.

Originally published in the February/March 2001 issue of Boston Review

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