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Reviewed by:
  • The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
  • Robert Gregg
The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. By Linebaugh and Rediker. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. 1

There are some critics who believe that Herman Melville originally intended Moby Dick to be an adventure/romance about Ishmael and Queequeg whaling on the high seas. But somewhere along the way the whale surfaced and became, in a way, as much Melville’s obsession as it was Ahab’s. The relevance of this point to our review of Peter Linbaugh and Marcus Rediker’s splendid work, The Many-Headed Hydra, may be unclear, but on reading this Atlantic history this reviewer was struck that its main heroes are as multiethnic as the Pequod’s crew, and that without Moby Dick, this is perhaps how Melville’s story might have looked—a story of “sea-Parisians”1 turning the world on its head.

We can refine this line of thinking further if we place George Orwell’s 1940 essay, “Inside the Whale,” alongside Moby Dick.2 Here we find the world swallowed up by the forces of totalitarianism, and the only course for the intellectual is one of quietude sitting within the whale (or one of Lady Astor’s cottages on the Isle of Jura). Continuing along this tack further still, we find E.P. Thompson penning a persuasive rejoinder to Orwell, locating a mooring for the left-wing intellectual “Outside the Whale,” outside NATO and the Soviet Union, and reclaiming the value of protest in bringing about humanistic change on either side of the Iron Curtain.3

Once the Berlin Wall had come down, of course, things looked very different. Orwell’s Winston Smith suddenly appeared to be freed from his shackles, and the world seemed able to swim free of the whale. For Thompson, however, the kind of protest he had led and those he had outlined in his historical writing now appeared less momentous, as no more than manifestations of the whale that had just departed. Moreover, the “English peculiarities” that had seemed worth valorizing in opposition to Stalinism and NATO, now seemed to evaporate in light of a growing awareness of empire. It now became very evident that empire had been absent from Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and that the nature of English-ness itself was up for grabs in the face of a continuing influx of former colonial subjects into Britain.4 The very fact that Salman Rushdie (who in many ways heralded the new British literature) would announce that the whale actually did not exist at all is very suggestive of the new post-Orwellian and post-Thompsonian zeitgeist taking shape.5

But wait. If this whale does not exist (and possibly never did), perhaps we can nonetheless go back and look for the bits of the story that Thompson missed and develop a new narrative of protest that is Thompsonian still. This narrative will have all the trappings of gender and race that Thompson was criticized for ignoring, and these trappings will not undermine the class narrative, rather they will bolster it. The narrative, moreover, will not be confined to England, but will be Atlantic in scope and it will be founded in the possibilities of empire for the dissemination and activation of protest. It will pay homage in effect to the Thompsonian possibilities of Black Marxism, a maneuver that may not be so difficult when one considers the work of someone like C.L.R. James, for whom Thompson showed some affinity.6

Well, this is what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have achieved for us. Their Thompsonian credentials are certainly impeccable: Linebaugh worked with Thompson on Albion’s Fatal Tree, while Rediker incorporated a healthy dose of Thompsonian analysis into his saga of eighteenth-century seamen and pirates, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.7 They have married their strengths in this text, and have relied on their enviable ability to follow every strand of protest into every tavern of every Atlantic port, to create a clear picture of a world...

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