Review of 'The Many Headed Hydra' by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker


The book is about the circulation of revolutionary ideas around the Atlantic. The authors don't set out to prove their thesis of circulation and improvement of revolutionary ideas systematically with tables of figures and statistics. Instead the book is a series of case studies, interesting in themselves, but each showing common features.

Francis Bacon is considered a distinguished philosopher credited with inventing the scientific method where theories are proposed and refined through experiment. He is singled out for great praise in many histories of science. Less, though, is said about his other career - that of beneficiary and propagandist for the early days of British colonial advantage. It was bacon that adopted the idea of the hydra in Greek mythology and in this book it comes up again and again as a metaphor adopted by the early ruling class. The hydra was a many-headed monster and one of Hercules's tasks was to battle with it. As one head got lopped anther two would emerge in its stead. But eventually Hercules manages to smite the monster down.

Bacon was one of the first to portray the rulers as Herculean giants and the hydra as the "motley crew" which opposed it. Bacon initially defined the hydra as having seven heads (though later propagandists would often modify this. Also by the nineteenth century some of "the other side" would come to reverse the metaphor completely and portray the workers as brave Hercules and the hydra as a ravenous beast of capitalism.)

1. The Calibian - West Indian Caribbean dwellers and any native peoples who resisted European interests in the New World

2. The Canaanite - Historically those who had lost land to the Israelites came to encompass the thousands of English forced onto the streets and then to the colonies after land enclosure and the mass transportation of the Irish after Cromwell's invasion

3. Pirates At this time specifically "corsairs" along the North African coast. Later the ruling class would recruit privateers to unofficially take up arms - eg the British attacks on the Spanish in the Caribbean. Later again - self-managed pirate ships (eg the ones we know from the movies) began to threaten England's own interest and from about 1690-1720 significantly menaced the slave trade - operating against ships carrying goods back into West Africa to exchange for slaves

4. Lumpens (not Bacon's term) After the medieval commons were enclosed and privatised - vast numbers were turned out. So there were swarms unwilling or (more commonly) unable to earn an honest wage. This swarm of petty criminals were being massively cracked down and were possible deported as convicts and indentured slaves to Virgina, Jamacica and Barbados. Bacon uses a fantastic list (which give a hint of the rich character of the original quotations used in the book): Abraham-men. Polliards, clapper dudgeons, whip jacks, dummerers, files, dunakers, cursitors, Roberds-men, saddlers, prigs, anglers, fraters, rufflers, bawdy-baskets, autem morts, walking morts, doxies and dells.

5. Assassins The Stuart kings onwards lived in mortal fear of assassins - real or imagined

6. Amazons Uppity women were incredibly active in the early 1600s - from the pirate queen Grace O Malley - to women who lead food riots to female preachers. One chapter - "a blackamore maid named Francis" is completely dedicated to just one such Congregationalist.

7. Wandering preachers - these were often the "theoreticians" for the hydra's many heads. There were hundreds especially around the time of Cromwell's revolt questioning the authorities both religious and earthly. One very common idea was that of antinomianism which questioned all moral authority derived from above and stressed that "all things are lawful for me" and that "God was no respecter of persons"

The book is about the circulation of revolutionary ideas around the Atlantic. The authors don't set out to prove their thesis of circulation and improvement of revolutionary ideas systematically with tables of figures and statistics. Instead the book is a series of case studies, interesting in themselves, but each showing common features. This can also be a bit depressing at times as the organisation of individual conspiracies is fascinating but they are always defeated. Personally I would have liked a chapter on the successful Haitian slave revolt (apparently this is very well covered by in the Black Jacobeans) and a chapter or even a book on the pirates, as this is one of the best sections.

The case studies aim to show how the same ideas (though amplified, improved or more generalised to apply to a wider definition of "mankind" with time) tended to reoccur again and again in time and space over the North Atlantic area. So the ideas of the Levellers and Antinomian preachers in England in the time of Cromwell are springing up all over Jamaica and the South East of America 200 years later. As well as spreading the ideas - the new empires, especially the English one, are continuously throwing together a motley combination of people of different colour and cultures but with immediate shared interests. Women are also very often to the fore in the organised conspiracies.

So for example the series of organised arson in New York in 1741. Involved in the planning are ex slaves from the Caribbean (often moved due to previous misbehaviour), first time African slaves, Irish indentured servants and prostitutes (bawds), Spanish Soldiers and even British soldiers from the garrison. The transportation of "bad apples" meant that they often got a few chances to "have their go". Take one slave just called Will. In 1733 he participated in slave revolt in the colony of Danish Saint John. In 1735 he was involved in the joint Creole/Akan slave rebellion in Antigua where he was imprisoned and tortured to name names. He was shipped to New York and played a major part in the 1741 arson attacks. This was the same type of motley crew that took part in the food riots, press gang battle and tea parties that started the American revolution. Later they were to be written out of history by the more "middling" leaders the Tom Paines and Thomas Jeffersons.

So through sailors (a self conscious marine proletariat with highly developed honour codes including welfare for the sick and injured) and enforced transport ideas were spread. This gradual diffusion of ideas also had some real effect. The wide spread battles against impressments often involving hundreds of seamen and port dwellers lead to its eventual dropping. The widespread slave revolts must surely have been as important as abolitionist campaigns in getting slavery banned. First and foremost the struggles slowed and limited the programme of land enclosure, forced transport, slavery and general plunder and pillage.

This is a great book - a book filled with romance. It could have been quite dry and academic but the authors instead focus on stories, which are fascinating in their own right, and are used to prove their general case. They are also fascinating by the use of myth - by both sides whether it is the Hydra, the biblical idea of "hewers of wood and drawers of water", another religious idea that of jubilee or William Blake's Orc. They also love the original slang or cant of the times and the origin of words and terms. They let the participants on both sides speak with their own rich and original vocabulary.

In summary the book looks at that phase of Capitalism termed primitive accumulation by Marx. This was the very beginning of colonisation and the acquisition of the first "capital" This is gloves off capitalism red in tooth and claw. It involved slavery and brutal colonisation and exploitation and the gradual and deliberate fostering of racists ideas. But at the same time it threw together new and interesting combinations of people ands spread radical ideas outwards. The motley crew resisted at every stage on the commons, the slave plantation, the original colonies, the ship and finally the factory. (The word factory comes from the factors - West African merchants mainly dealing in slaves)

The emphasis in most labour history has been on white, skilled, male, waged labour. This has hidden the motley crew from view. It has underrated their massive capacity for struggle - their role in the Haitian and American revolutions and even their influence on some of the ideas of 1798 in Ireland.

I read a few reviews on the Internet just to see what their fellow labour historians thought. One of their key goals is to emphasise the integration of these early struggles in terms of race and sex. Some think that they over play their hand and draw sweeping conclusions from limited evidence - Graham Russell Hodges for example "remains unpersuaded" on the size and integration of the 1741 events in News York. But, to be honest, I'm combing hard to nit pick this book. It combines romance and theory and gives the motley crew their due in the struggles against slavery and colonialism and the spread of the ideas of freedom, liberation and "the rights of man"

A few points that arose from the discussion

* That an idea could gradually feed through the whole north Atlantic "system" and come out changed or improved by generations of struggle and retelling
* Ruling class gradually bought in racist ideas to block slaves and indentured white labourers from combining. At the start their need for labour - any colour or sex - was predominant
* Progressive elements in bible - role of certain passages and books - the only way for ideas to be expressed - one of the few books there was wide access to
* Runaways joining natives for better lifestyle and such groupings persisting.
* Links with 1798 e.g. Lord Edward Fitzgerald's travels through Iraqoi Indian land sin Canada and the war fought there
* Resonance with contemporary globalisation and struggles against it.

This is a talk given to a WSM meeting and represents the opinion of the author alone.