- Desertion in the Early Modern World: A Comparative History ed. by Matthias van Rossum and Jeannette Kamp
A group of predominantly Dutch scholars has put together a provocative book on the history of desertion, or the act of workers abandoning their work without permission, across the world of 1500–1800. (Whether this world was "early modern" or, as seems more accurate to this reviewer, "late Agrarian," with more similarities to earlier than later times, is open to question, including on the criteria examined in this collection. It was certainly a transitional period, whatever one calls it.)
The book has many strengths. Chief among them is the central decision to treat desertion not just as a military/naval phenomenon but as a broader question of labor history. This decision highlights the fact that military and naval labor in fact took place within a larger, globalizing world of demands for labor, and that desertion was a central tactic of labor "negotiation" in this world. Desertion in turn rested on several central characteristics of the period's labor "market": above all that this was a world of chronic labor shortage and therefore, following a standard dynamic of the Agrarian (pre-Industrial) world, a world of minimal labor rights and highly restricted labor freedom. In other words, contrary to modern economic assumptions about labor that derive from a true market context, labor shortage normally leads not to higher wages but to reduced labor freedom. The individual case studies that make up six of the eight chapters are uniformly interesting and well researched. The collection just on these bases is a valuable one.
It is not, however, all that it could have been. To begin with, the project could have been more transparent that the scope is not really "the early modern world," but the "early modern Dutch-connected world," since Dutch and VOC contexts are central to all the case studies. The result is that a full comparative perspective on desertion is lacking, since we have no information from crucial places (above all, China, but also Russia) that could cast light on desertion in contexts where the balance of network and hierarchy influences (and relatedly of labor supply) were balanced very differently from the conditions of the Dutch-VOC world. (I must admit that there is a certain ironic satisfaction in seeing Dutch scholars follow so unselfconsciously in the footsteps of generations of scholars of the British Empire, for whom Britain and the world are so often coterminous.)
But the more disappointing weakness is that the first two chapters, which aim to provide a theoretical framework for the case studies, do [End Page 425] not live up to the quality of the case studies. The first, "Runaways: A Global History" by Alessandro Stanziani, raises a number of excellent theoretical points, especially in setting the history of desertion squarely in a labor history context. But Stanziani's central point, that the period saw far more sustained hierarchical resistance to labor freedom and the rights of laborers than the "standard story" allows, seems to this reviewer to be based on an interpretive error. The "standard" story, especially when extended to 1900, is of rising labor rights under the influence of rising network (market-based) influence on global labor employment. Stanziani points out that regulations and anti-labor legal assumptions in fact gained in frequency and vehemence over this period. But does this undermine the standard case as much as he claims? One of the first principles of legal history is that repeated (and increasingly harsh) outlawing of an act is evidence that the act is happening, often, and probably increasingly. One of the central points of the entire collection is that desertion happened massively across the globe in this period. (A little basic social historical cliometrics would have been useful for framing this question: was desertion more frequent in this age than earlier? I suspect it was, because global connections increased opportunities for flight.) From this perspective, his case for the continued strength of coercive hierarchy...