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The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic Hardcover – October 20, 2000

25 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0807050064 ISBN-10: 0807050067

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Editorial Reviews Review

Globalism is nothing new, argue leftist historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. Centuries ago, European trade concerns, such as the Dutch East Indies Company and the Virginia Company, sought to create an overseas empire owned by corporations, not governments. Backed by governments all the same, these companies found themselves opposed only by a congeries of revolutionary sailors, artisans, farmers, and smallholders, who formed a "many-headed hydra" of resistance.

Arguing that this history of resistance to globalism has been unjustly overlooked, Linebaugh and Rediker delineate key episodes. When, for instance, a group of English sailors and common laborers were shipwrecked on the island of Bermuda en route to America, they created their own communal government, which was so pleasant to them that they refused to be "rescued" and had to be removed to the colonies by force. Their ideological descendants later banded with runaway slaves and other discontents to form multi-ethnic, multilingual pirate navies that hindered the transatlantic traffic in metals, jewels, and captive humans. Some of the men and women involved in these pirate bands, this "Atlantic proletariat," put their skills at the service of the American Revolution, which, in the author's view, "ended in reaction as the Founding Fathers used race, nation, and citizenship to discipline, divide, and exclude the very sailors and slaves who had initiated and propelled the revolutionary movement." The fire of rebellion soon spread all the same, they note, to such places as Haiti, Ireland, France, even England, helped along by these peripatetic and unsung rebels.

Linebaugh and Rediker's book is provocative and often brilliant, opening windows onto little-known episodes in world history. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Deriding the "historic invisibility" of their subjectsA"the multiethnic class that was essential to the rise of capitalism and the modern, global economy"ALinebaugh (The London Hanged), professor of history at the University of Toledo, and Rediker (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, reveal that throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, mobile workers of all sortsAmaids, slaves, felons, pirates and indentured farm handsAformulated ideas about freedom and justice that would eventually find expression in the American Revolution. The moneymen thought of themselves as noble heirs to Hercules, "symbol of power and order," and referred to the people they mobilized across continents as "hydra," after Hercules's many-headed foe. During these early days of intercontinental commerce, there were many small rebellions, and Linebaugh and Rediker's book is especially valuable for its rich descriptions of the lesser-known revolts, including one by slaves in New Jersey who "conspired to kill their masters," burn their property and make off with their horses in 1734, and another by Native American whalers who tried to torch Nantucket in 1738. The authors also describe the March 1736 "Red String Conspiracy": 40 to 50 Irish felons, who planned to burn Savannah, kill all the white men and escape with a band of Indians (the conspirators wore red string around the right wrist to identify themselves). Their plot was foiled but caused great unrest in Savannah. This book provides a unique window onto early modern capitalist history. The authors are to be commended not only for recovering the voices of obscure folk, but also for connecting them to the overarching themes of the age of revolution. 50 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Beacon Press (October 20, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807050067
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807050064
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #858,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Panopticonman on October 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
In 1741 at Hughson's, a waterfront tavern in New York City, a motley crew of men and women, members of what Linebaugh and Rediker call the Atlantic proletariat planned a rebellion against the New York ruling class. They included among others radical Irishmen and women, Africans slaves, the wretched refuse created by the enclosure of the commons, the plantation system and the slave trade. The rebellion was uncovered by the authorities, its leaders were tried convicted, lynched or broken on the wheel, or sent off to slave in plantations in the West Indies. Newspaper accounts of the time described vast crowds gathering from all over New York and elsewhere to view a peculiar, emblematic and perhaps even prophetic phenomenon. The lynched bodies of two leaders of the rebellion, Hughson, an Irishman, and John Gwin, an African, were left to rot as a warning. In death, the white's body turned black, and the black's turned white

According to the authors, this resistance in New York was not unusual. It was just one of many, many rebellions and uprisings in the Atlantic colonies by what the authors call the "hydrarchy," appropriating Francis Bacon's scurrilous metaphor of the many-headed hydra which he borrowed from the myth of Hercules and used to characterize dispossessed and extirpated peasantry of the Atlantic, a characterization used thereafter by the ruling class to describe those whom they enslaved to the exigencies of capitalism. As the authors say in their conclusion on pages 327-328: "In the preceding pages, we have examined the Herculean process of globalization and the challenges posed to it by the many headed hydra.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Monty Vierra on October 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The Many-Headed Hydra will appeal to readers interested in history "from the bottom up". Most histories look at the past from the viewpoint of kings, queens, priests, and others "at the top". In this book, instead of hearing from popes and potentates, we hear the voices of many speakers for and from the poor and forgotten, the working men and women of the English commons, the factories, the tall ships, and the plantations.
As the subtitle makes clear, this is mainly a history of sailors, slaves, and common people who are often ignored or downplayed in history books. The authors contend that these were the men and women mainly responsible for the rebellins and revolts and wars for independence fought in the Atlantic world from 1600 to 1800. In this book, the poeple who actually led the struggle, such as Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre, take center stage. The so-called leaders, from Cromwell to Jefferson, end up with supporting roles and sometimes even play the antagonists' part.
Although the authors write in a lively, engaging manner, some general readers may find the going tough at some points. Both of the authors are history professors, and they clearly feel strongly about what they've written. They don't use lots of specialized historical terms, but they do use many words specific to the periods they are considering. I think they could've helped a lot by including a glossary of some expressions hard to find without an unabridged dictionary. (There's only so much that one can guess from context.)
Also, general readers should approach this book as they would a good novel. For example, sometimes the authors mention people almost out of the blue, as if they'd already been introduced. In fact, they are participants from upcoming chapters.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 12, 2001
Format: Hardcover
When the World Trade Organization meets, we are used to seeing protests from people who think that the global economy is somehow wrong, that current capitalism is not the best way to protect workers or the environment, and that the world should somehow be put on the right course. Such opposition seems like a recent phenomenon, but according to _The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic_ (Beacon Press) by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, there has been protest against capitalism ever since capitalism began. Their book is a valuable history to show that the ideas of property and land use that we take for granted were not inevitable.
The book's title comes from the legend of Hercules attempting to slay the hydra; whenever he cut one of the heads off the fearsome beast, two would grow in its place. The use of the story from the seventeenth century on was not just a boast of knowledge of the classics or a mere rhetorical ornament. The hydra, over and over again, stood for the mob, dispossessed commoners, religious radicals, pirates, sailors, slaves and more. Essentially, in religious and political harangues, the many heads of the hydra stood for all the unseemly factions that were standing in the way of those with possessions to get more possessions. As the book shows, mentioning decapitation of the hydra was in many cases not a figure of speech, but was a call to actual capital punishment, or simple murder. The main subjects of the book (and the authors write many of them up as heroes) are the often obscure sailors, slaves, and women who were caught up in the eighteenth century's enthusiasm for revolution and liberty. There were several engines that drove the protest.
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