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
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
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.