- Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Terror, of Race & Class, and of Kate & Ned Despard by Peter Linebaugh
Linebaugh attempts to re-capture the mental universe and social context of British radicals Edward and Catherine Despard at the turn of the nineteenth century, as they sought to contest the onslaught of capitalism, defend the commons, and define 'the interests of the human race" (407). Expanding an earlier chapter about the Despards in the Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000), which he co-wrote with Marcus Rediker, Linebaugh seeks to recapture radical voices at a moment of brutal state repression and economic exploitation. His attempt to save dissidents from the condescension of history consciously builds from the work of Thompson.1
He treats the story of the Despards—Edward a minor member of the Irish gentry and administrator in British Honduras turned convicted would-be royal assassin, and Catherine a woman of color who became a prominent prison reformer—as a point of departure; his is no conventional biography. Indeed, the Despards are only a small portion of what follows: Linebaugh spends most of the work discussing vast webs of radical Atlantic World connections. A central animating theme involves the escalating attacks on "commons" as capitalism gathered force through enclosure and expropriation, displacing and impoverishing commoners and leading diverse individuals and groups to new acts of creativity in their desperation. Amid a world burning from the twin onslaughts of political and industrial revolution, Linebaugh brings together diverse thinkers and activists who attempted to formulate dynamic alternatives that could set Atlantic society on another basis.
Linebaugh's Atlantic Revolution is a révolution manquée, glimpsed in communitarian events like the Tupac Amaru revolt and Haitian Revolution, but betrayed by both the Old Regimes and liberal revolutions of the era; "America! Utopia! Equality! Crap" is one memorable chapter title (137). Yet Linebaugh's sharp focus on the intellectual origins of agrarian communism incompletely fits with the pre-ideological nature of the era chronicled, in which many revolutionaries could be significantly more radical on some issues (and at some moments) than on others. [End Page 594]
An erudite work by a scholar who adapted classic "history from below" to more diverse subjects, while integrating environmental history and literary studies (the book's title comes from a William Blake poem), Red Round Globe Hot Burning will hold the interest of a wide array of historians. The vignettes collected in the book display the burning power of ideas in a period of tumultuous change. In an era of brutal reaction across the British Empire, the Despards provided a glimpse of an alternative history based on racial equality, popular alliances among the Atlantic workers who "constituted the vanguard of the proletariat (65)," and the fierce defense of communal property.
Linebaugh's perspective will draw criticism, however, from those wanting more stringent approaches to Atlantic history. Although Linebaugh shows far-flung connections between individuals and asserts likely connections, he does not go into sufficient detail about the nature of those connections. The influence of the Despards and their radical contemporaries is more asserted than demonstrated. Whereas the last generation of Atlantic history has largely remained content with finding the existence of transnational linkages, the generation to come will need to interpret the strength of such influences more precisely.
1. Edward P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963).