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Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 512-514

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Book Review

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

The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. By PETER LINEBAUGH AND MARCUS REDIKER. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. Pp. 433. $30.00 (cloth).

This is a stimulating and pioneering work which makes a significant contribution to the study of history from a global perspective. Indeed, Linebaugh and Rediker recreate a forgotten phase of globalization: the emergence of a multiethnic proletarian culture during the early modern period. The scope of the work encompasses the whole of the British Atlantic world between the early seventeenth and the early nineteenth century, and the authors are equally at home discussing the social, economic, and cultural contexts of life in England, on the mainland colonies of North America, on the islands of the Caribbean, and in West Africa, not forgetting life on the wooden world at sea. The authors provide a compelling portrait of the underclass of the first British empire. Whereas the story of the early modern white Atlantic is so often told in terms of heroism, freedom, and opportunity, it is here depicted convincingly by way of its neglected underside of oppression, harshness, and brutality. The Atlantic underclass, the authors remind us, was white as well as black, and most of the early modern subjects of the English crown, of whatever race or ethnicity, shared a common experience as victims of authority and guinea pigs of colonial enterprise. The work ranges from discussions of the economic transformation of early modern England and the outlet found in American colonization for the social dislocation which it caused at home, to the radical counterculture of the Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters which developed in the chaos of the English Civil Wars, and a similar—but not multiethnic—counterculture which arose in the world of Atlantic piracy; from the multi-ethnic solidarities of Atlantic conspiracies and rebellions to the interracial connections which fostered radical movements across the British Atlantic world of the second half of the eighteenth century, including the American Revolution itself. [End Page 512]

Linebaugh and Rediker offer a significant challenge to the prevailing interpretative consensus on the origins of the American Revolution, namely that colonists invoked the rights of Englishmen. But what did the rights of Englishmen mean to the multi-ethnic proletariat who thronged the harbors and manned the ships of the Atlantic seaboard? No longer, for example, does the Afro-Indian sailor, Crispus Attucks, stand alone as a token figure of non-white resistance to Britain, but rather he is seen anew as emblematic of a wider context of radical and oppositional ideas which transcended narrow ethnic, racial, and national boundaries. Linebaugh and Rediker remind us how alive the events of the 1640s and the 1650s were to the generation of 1776. Obscured for us by the wiggish compromises of 1688, within the milieu of radical religion there was an enduring awareness of the values of the Levellers, Diggers, and antinomians, as well, moreover, as a genuine republican tradition. The book concludes with a series of fascinating case studies of multi-ethnic radical connections across the Atlantic world, including the close relationship of the black Afro-British writer Olaudah Equiano with the Scoto-British radical Thomas Hardy and his English wife Lydia.

This in turn raises a significant historiographical question, which the authors do not shirk. How did this vivid multi-ethnic milieu become a "world we have lost?" The answer is that our intellectual—and narrative—categories hardened. New notions of biological racism were forged. Nationalism was born, and history was rewritten in narrowly national terms. Even radical and working-class movements were reconceptualized in national terms, whether English or Irish. A radical Atlantic culture which was green and black and multi-ethnically British was written out of the historical memory—until now. The book recovers a world hidden by the biases of labor historiography towards the white male, skilled and...