- Mutiny in the Danish Atlantic World: Convicts, sailors, and a dissonant empire by Johan Heinsen
By Johan Heinsen. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
On the evening of 19 January 1683 a group of sailors and convicts huddled up in quiet, urgent conversation on the dark lower deck of the Havmanden, a vessel owned by the Danish West India and Guinea Company, bound for the small island colony of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. For weeks the men had been exchanging stories about the imperious captain of the ship, the Dutchman Jan Blom, and the haughty Jørgan Iversen, once the iron-fisted governor of St. Thomas, now on his way to resume the post. Blom was known for his lavish dinners in the captain’s cabin, which sickened the growling stomachs of those down below. Iversen was denounced as a “soul-seller” who profited off the bodies of the poor. Tensions on the ship had reached a breaking point and the time for decisive action had arrived. The following day the mutineers smashed open Blom’s cabin door and shot him as he tried to escape, threw Iversen overboard, and killed six others loyal to their power. A motley crew of Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, German, Irish and English sailors and convicts took charge of the ship and imagined a different social order of the ship and a new destiny for themselves as pirates.
After an anarchic voyage of two and a half months, during which another uprising exploded from the lower deck, the mutineers wrecked the Havmanden on the coast of Sweden in late March 1683. Danish authorities captured the rebels and carried them back to Copenhagen, where, four months later, they tortured and executed nine of them before a crowd of thousands. The mutineers’ grand plan failed but their actions nonetheless had huge consequences, explains Johan Heinsen in this excellent history from below: their revolt proved to be a turning point in the history of empire. Struggle from below must now be reckoned a major cause of the relative failure of Danish colonialism.
Drawing upon a deep and rich body of sources, Heinsen explores this mutiny and its consequences in a complex, sophisticated way. The first half of the book, “The Noises of Mutiny,” probes the process of mutiny and its genesis in storytelling. The second half, “A Social History of Dissonance,” situates the mutiny in a “wider context of lower class traditions and struggles” among sailors and convicts (18). Heinsen combines the methods of social history (a la Natalie Zemon Davis), cultural anthropology (Victor Turner’s “ritual process”), microhistory (Carlo Ginzburg) and even a kind of sociolinguistics (reminiscent of Dell Hymes). He then anchors all in a larger framework most fully realized by the great Herman Melville, who demonstrated through his novels that a tall ship was an entire social world unto itself. Heinsen succeeds in writing a history of those on the lower deck Danish authorities described, accurately for once, as a “multitude of indomitable people” (125). The history is dissonant because the harsh, clashing sounds of the struggle aboard the Havmanden were irreconcilable in their own day and remain so in ours.
The most creative part of Heinsen’s approach is his analysis of the soundscape of the ship. Heinsen “listens” to his archival sources with extraordinary intensity, using what he calls “slow meditation” over the traces of “broken oaths, unruly tongues and disobedient utterances” (177, 14). He regards stories as “dark matter” that affects everything nearby even when it cannot be directly observed (14). He detects and amplifies reverberations in the sources to recover the lost voices of sailors and convicts who told stories, spread rumors, bonded with each other and changed the course of history. This is not abstract, idealist discourse analysis but rather a materialist accounting of speech as action, in conflict, creating and subverting the “aural order” of the ship (81). Heinsen has conceptualized and reconstructed the hidden history of sonic class struggle in genuinely creative ways.
Written with grace and power, Mutiny in the Danish Atlantic World deserves a wide readership among all scholars and readers...