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The Red Atlantic

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 29, Number 4, December 2001
pp. 479-486 | 10.1353/rah.2001.0060

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Reviews in American History 29.4 (2001) 479-486
Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. 433 pp. Figures, map, notes, and index. $30.00 (cloth); $18.00 (paper).

Until quite recently, Atlantic history seemed to be available in any color, so long as it was white. To be sure, this was the history of the North Atlantic rather than the South Atlantic, of Anglo-America rather than Latin America, and of the connections between North America and Europe rather than of those between both Americas and Africa. The origins of this history of the white Atlantic have been traced back to anti-isolationism in the United States during the Second World War and to the internationalism of the immediate postwar years, when historians constructed histories of "the Atlantic civilization" just as politicians were creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This Atlantic Ocean was the Mediterranean of a western civilization defined as Euro-American and (for the first time, in the same circles) as "Judeo-Christian". It was therefore racially, if not necessarily ethnically, homogeneous. Such uniformity was the product of selectivity. Like many genealogists, these early proponents of Atlantic history overlooked inconvenient or uncongenial ancestors. Students of the black Atlantic, from W. E. B. Du Bois to C. L. R. James and Eric Williams, were not recognized as fellow-practitioners of the history of the Atlantic world, just as Toussaint L'Ouverture's rebellion was not an event in R. R. Palmer's Age of the Democratic Revolution (1959-64), for example.

Atlantic history has recently become much more multicolored. The black Atlantic of the African diaspora has been joined by the green Atlantic of the Irish dispersal. The white Atlantic has itself become a self-conscious field of study rather than the defining model for all other Atlantic histories. And now Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present the red Atlantic of expropriation and capitalism, proletarianization and resistance in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Theirs is an avowedly motley history, stitched together from shreds and patches to create "a story about the origins of capitalism and colonization, about world trade and the building of empires . . . about the uprooting and movement of peoples, the making and the transatlantic deployment of 'hands' . . . a story about exploitation and resistance to exploitation . . . a story about alternative ways of living, and about the official use of violence and terror to deter or destroy them" (p. 14). It thus has little in common with the traditional political histories of the white Atlantic and more with cultural studies of the black Atlantic, especially Paul Gilroy's account (in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness [1993]) of the Atlantic as the crucible of a modernity defined by upheaval and dispersal, mass mobility, and cultural hybridity. It also has ambitions to describe the making of an Atlantic working class just as E. P. Thompson had earlier chronicled The Making of the English Working Class (1963). However, Linebaugh and Rediker's chronology extends further back into early modernity than Gilroy's -- stretching from the early seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries -- and race and empire are as conspicuous in their history as they were absent from Thompson's.

Linebaugh and Rediker's title comes from Greek mythology -- the second of Hercules's labors -- but their thesis derives from a more recent mythology, the theory of "The So-Called Primitive Accumulation" in the first volume of Marx's Das Kapital. Marx described the expropriation of the agricultural producer by an emergent class of capitalist appropriators who thereby created a landless proletariat to form the industrial army of the manufacturing system. The classic form of this process could be observed in England, from the Reformation to the Industrial Revolution. Linebaugh and Rediker appropriate Marx's anglocentric focus, the stages of his narrative, and even many of its details. For example, their description of the sixteenth-century English "combination of expropriation, industrial exploitation . . . and unprecedented military mobilization [that] resulted in the huge Tudor regional rebellions" (pp. 18-9) would be unrecognizable to most historians...



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