Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

(one of my reviews at Politics and Culture ... I've been revisiting this book again and again lately ...)

Peter Linebaugh and Mark Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon P, 2000)

Like many important things in our lives these days I have had to repeatedly revisit and reconsider Linebaugh's and Rediker's history of the beginnings of the British Transatlantic empire and the resistances that arose in response to the ordering processes of early global capitalism. The first time I read Many-Headed Hydra I was researching the origins of global capitalism and the various resistances to its rise. The second visit to this history was in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks upon the WTC towers in New York City. I used their history as a background to wrestle with the uses and abuses of the term "terror" in the media and politics. The third reading was completed in order to judge the suitability of the book for use in my undergraduate course "Terror in Contemporary Culture." It is through these three different readings that Many-Headed Hydra's importance to contemporary issues will be examined. (In this review I will be examining some of the broader issues surrounding the authors' history and its usefulness to scholars and teachers. For those looking for a more general summary of the chapters and content please visit Graham Russell Hodges' review of Many-Headed Hydra listed in the bibliography).

One of the current obsessions of contemporary academia is the debate about the conception of globalization as a new process that has no alternatives-in other words, you either jump on board or get left behind. Manfred Steger states that this is the rhetoric of neoliberal globalists "who believe in the creation of a single, global market in goods, services, and capital. They suggest that all peoples and states are equally subject to the logic of globalization, which is in the long run beneficial and inevitable, and that societies have no choice but to adapt to this world-shaping force" (12). Among the advocates of a purely beneficial global capitalism this "irresistible" process "is frequently expressed in quasi-religious language that bestows almost divine wisdom upon the market." This can be seen in the economic concerns surrounding the current political rhetoric of The War on Terror, or, in the pages of new age technology worshippers, such as, Wired, and in the market propaganda of pundits like Thomas Friedman.

In opposition to this contemporary narrative of an ahistorical conception of globalization as a totally new phenomenon, Many-Headed Hydra provides a framework for reconsidering globalization, or better yet, global capitalism, as an ongoing, historical process. Linebaugh and Rediker provide a historical mapping of the various ordering processes used to consolidate and control the economic flows of the burgeoning British Transatlantic Empire. In this history from below they reconstruct the stories of those who were impressed, enslaved, and conquered in order to provide this new empire with a continuous flow of fresh bodies to serve as the "hewers of wood and drawers of water." A key part of this book is its examination of early modern labor history and the methods used to enforce compliance. The authors' achievement in this regard has been recognized through the awarding of "The International Labor History Award" for The Many-Headed Hydra.

The colonizing of vast geographical areas and the enclosed taming of once wild common areas relied upon the forced labor of indentured servants, conscripted sailors and increasingly on the brutal slave trade. It is here that the ordering processes of global capitalism are given birth to while paradoxically these same ordering processes create the resistances that will plague the rise of the Atlantic Empire(s). In order to accurately map these various resistances, Linebaugh and Rediker move past the "severity of history that has long been the captive of the nation-state" as an "unquestioned framework of analysis" (6-7). This is carried-out through two interweaving historical narratives. The first narrative is that of the Atlantic ruling classes as they seek to consolidate their control of this new Empire and create legitimizing myths to justify their acts of "terror" used to pacify resistant populations-both at home and abroad. The second narrative, which is more important to the authors, is the alliances formed amongst multi-ethnic workers in response to the brutal conditions of this new empire.

These resistances are the main theme of Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh and Rediker explore the various resistances to these global colonizing forces through the metaphors of "terror" that the dominant society used to demonize alternative lifestyles. Prominent amongst these was the image of the multi-headed Hydra that the mythic Hercules had to destroy as one of his heroic labors. The mythical Hydra would sprout two heads in the place of every head that was lopped off by Hercules. In a final desperate move Hercules used a torch to sear the severed necks in order to prevent new heads from sprouting. It was the legitimizing myths of political theorists, like Francis Bacon, that supported the representation of marginalized peoples as monstrous forces that threatened the ordered progression of society. In Bacon's 1622 book An Advertisement Touching An Holy War he outlines a social theory that viewed the new unruly combinations of workers, sailors, commoners, and slaves as "monstrous and used the myth of the many-headed hydra to develop his theory of monstrosity, a subtly, thinly veiled policy of terror and genocide" (40). Social ordering movements such as these sought to eradicate the resistive hydra-like uprisings wherever they appeared, but like the mythical monster the repressive efforts only resulted in the multiplication of revolts.

The reality though was that the ruling classes were using "terror" to create social "boundaries" to create division amongst the workers. An example of this was when after the St. Patrick's Day Rebellion (1741) in New York the authorities sought to eliminate the threat of workers' solidarity through an attack on the "prevailing multiracial practices and bonds of proletarian life in Atlantic New York. First they went after the taverns and other settings where "cabals" of poor whites and blacks could be formed and subversive plans disseminated. Next they self-consciously recomposed the proletariat of New York to make it more difficult for workers along the waterfront to find among themselves source of unity. And finally, they endeavored to teach racial lessons to New York's people of European descent, promoting a white identity ... " (207). This organized "terror" was the "mechanism of the labor market" that was used to control those who labored as indentured servants and captured slaves (35, 60).

Through their mapping of the dominant ordering forces and the resistive revolts Linebaugh and Rediker provide a historical background of the marginalized voices of those who resisted this consolidating process of the transatlantic Empire. In these stories we begin to recognize how these marginalized peoples-African slaves, English convicts, the conquered Irish, poor women used as prostitutes and breeders, the dispossessed natives of the Americas, and commoners' children kidnapped as fresh labor replacements-were viewed as disposable commodities and natural resources to be exploited in order to build this Empire. The "ruling classes" of this era used metaphors of "terror" to justify their "endless mutilations and executions" as well as the "killing labors" forced upon "European, African, and American workers in building Atlantic capitalism" (Rediker and Linebaugh, 2001: 1).

Linebaugh and Rediker present a strong and coherent narrative that is all the more surprising when we consider that "Earlier versions of some of the chapters of Hydra appeared first as separate essays and have been passed around for years in photocopy, achieving near-cult status" (Wilson, 17). It is clear why these chapters would prove so useful to established scholars as well as beginning students. The authors move past what the anthropologist Jane Margold criticizes as the contemporary trend of presenting a "culture of terror" or "culture of fear" in which personal or group agency is absent. Margold further states that the problem in presenting "cultures of terror and fear" is that it provides "scant insight into when and under what conditions reactions to fear-provoking circumstances include strategizing and political mobilization-rather than paralysis, silence, nightmares or displacements of rage" (83).

The Many-Headed Hydra instead explains how the ruling elites used legitimizing myths based upon metaphors of societal "terror" to manipulate cultural understandings in order to justify repressive violence against culturally defined "punishable categories of people" (64, 66). As Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, in their book Social Dominance (2001), remind us: "Systems of group-based social hierarchy and oppression do not just fall from the sky, nor do they merely result from the accidents and vicissitudes of human history" (61). Neither do the resistances to social dominance and Linebaugh and Rediker give us a picture of a history from "below" in which we can see the agency of laborers as they crossed boundaries of race, class, and nation to resist the colonizing processes of the Atlantic empire(s). The epitome of the breeding grounds for these alliances was the factory-like ships that roamed the Atlantic and the various waterfronts workers that serviced these ships. The various backgrounds of these workers can be seen in the St Patrick's Day New York rebellion of 1741 that "combined the experiences of the deep-sea ship (hydrarchy), the military regiment, the plantation slave, the waterfront gang, the religious conventicle, and the ethnic tribe or clan to make something new, unprecedented, and powerful" (179). This image of an interracial, subversive, motley crew arose in the pre-revolutionary American colonies as a result of the resistance of sailors to English pressgangs seeking labor for their ships and later in the outright rebellions against the 1765 Stamp Act and other revolutionary riots. It was these proletarian rebels that inspired many of the founding thinkers of the American Revolution, unfortunately, as in the earlier chapters on the English Revolution, these proletarian revolutionary forces were seen as a threat to the owners of private property and eventually they were excluded from the country they had helped to inspire. Although defeated and dispersed the American motley crew would eventually serve as the inspiration for the later French and Haitian revolutions. The lesson learned here, in this history, is that no matter how terrible or complete the suppression of the various rebellions they always re-appeared following the currents of economic expansion and trade. Perhaps this is also the lesson that must be learned as we continue to struggle over the processes of globalization-that global capitalism is an ongoing historical process and that it is never a sure thing. There have always been alternatives to global capitalism its just that in a Darwinistic capitalist system that benefits the dominant society these alternative lifestyles have often been brutally suppressed or eliminated.

This book is a treasure trove of resources and, while presenting a complicated historical picture, should be accessible to all levels of students. Having said that I do have a few complaints. The usefulness of the many sources would have been improved by the inclusion of a bibliography. Also, it seems that any broad regional history should include a least a few maps of the geographical areas discussed, maybe along the lines of the simple, inexpensive, yet very effective map that accompanies Benedict Anderson's recent collection of essays The Spectres of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia and the World (NY: Verso, 2000: vi-vii). Lastly, I was disturbed by the presentation of a quote from B. Traven's novel The Death Ship (1962) without any reference to it as a work of fiction (153-4). This novel is not widely known, and, thus, it can easily be assumed to be a historical source when used to illustrate how sailors overcame the obstacles of mixed nationalities, beliefs, and ethnicities in order to develop communicational alliances that would foster resistive hydrarchy. These minor complaints aside this is a remarkable contribution to the growing collection of New Atlanticist histories and labor histories viewed from "below."

Michael Benton, Illinois State University

Works Cited

Hodges, Graham Russell. "Lumpen-Proletarians of the Atlantic World, Unite!" Common-Place 1.3 (April 2001): 1-3. Online at

Margold, Jane A. "From 'Cultures of Fear and Terror' to the Normalization of Violence." Critique of Anthropology 19.1 (1999): 63-88.

Rediker, Marcus and Peter Linebaugh. "'The Many-Headed Hydra': An Exchange" New York Review of Books (September 20, 2001): 1-3. Article online at

Sidanius, Jim and Felicia Pratto. Social Dominance. NY: Cambridge U P, 2001.

Steger, Manfred. Globalism: The New Market Ideology. NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. "The Revolutionary Atlantic." 1st of the Month 7.1 (2000): 16-17.

Review Link

No comments: