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  • Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker
  • Eric W. Sager
Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail (Boston: Beacon Press 2014)

Sailors, pirates, slaves, and motley crews of the Atlantic world gather here and speak to us through the voice of their pre-eminent historian. Much of it we have heard before, but to see and hear these outlaws assembled in one place is a rewarding experience and a reminder of the transformative impact of Rediker’s vision on our understanding of the Atlantic world. The seven chapters of this book give us a synthesis not only of specific studies of marginalized people, but also of a way of seeing and of hearing beyond the veil of “terracentric” assumptions, (2) challenging us to re-imagine the emergence of capitalism, changing class relationships, the abolition of slavery, the rise of revolutionary movements, and the dynamics of communication and knowledge across oceans. It is a deeply engaging and provocative synthesis in which larger worlds are revealed through felicitous choice of voice, image, and anecdote, and in the pellucid prose for which this author has long been admired.

The chapter on sailors’ yarns, a recent conference paper, is a bold essay on the great oral culture of the sea. The chapter is rich in allusions (Thomas More, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton, Defoe, and many more) but it is no mere literary excursus. People of great learning went down to the docks to learn from sailors, and in their yarns sailors spread the news of mutinies and revolutions. The sailor became the conveyor of crucial information, and seaborne yarns “shaped the dynamics of world history in the age of sail.” (29)

The memoir of Edward Barlow, autodidact sailor of the late 17th century, displays the complex thinking of an egalitarian, anti-authoritarian Protestant whose English patriotism allowed room for echoes of the Diggers of the English Revolution. Rediker introduces Henry Pitman as another representative character of the Atlantic world, the escapee, the rebel who became a fugitive, marooned in a Caribbean ecology. Rediker skilfully contrasts the real to the fictional maroon, Robinson Crusoe, whose image as a modern individualist hero was founded on illusion and the evasion of collectivist realities. “Under the Banner of King Death” introduces new material to the account [End Page 285] of pirates that Rediker gave us in an article more than three decades ago, and while inevitably sketchier than his book Villains of All Nations (2004), the chapter serves as a welcome introduction to the egalitarian and collectivist culture of the pirate community.

The “motley crew” of Chapter 5 includes the multi-ethnic sailors, slaves, labourers, dockers, fugitives, and others who made their own contribution to the abolitionist movement and to the American Revolution, even as their antinomian egalitarianism and rowdy resistance was severely contained and deflected by the fathers of the republic. Whether or not you agree that the motley crew was really a proletariat, it is surely possible to agree that these “citizens of the world” were new “vectors of revolution” (116) in the revolutionary era. Chapter 6, a revised version of a chapter in Rediker’s The Slave Ship (2007), is a powerful reconnaissance of the massive traffic in human beings across the Atlantic. Rediker’s history tells us more about resistance and rebellion than do other works on the Middle Passage, and his account is informed to great advantage by his deep knowledge of the slave ships, those complex, closely articulated assemblages of iron, wood, equipment, and human beings that became the stage for recurring rebellions. Chapter 7 draws upon Rediker’s 2012 book on the Amistad rebellion of 1839, but is largely new. Four case studies in the popular representation of the revolt sustain the case for the importance of antislavery “from below.” (170)

Outlaws of the Atlantic is a work for scholars, students, and general readers. It is an obvious choice as a core reading in an undergraduate course on the Atlantic world. Nevertheless, there is much that Rediker does not attempt here. He chooses not to revisit some of the critiques...


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pp. 285-286
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