Faint echoes of freedom in manacled and migrant

The Many-headed Hydra
June 15, 2001

The creation of European outposts along the coastlines of the Americas and dotted among the Caribbean islands brought into being a host of new and varied societies. Founded and developed through the expansive endeavours of European maritime states, through private commercial ambition - sometimes through simple desperation, they relied on the labouring efforts of various peoples. There were indigenous peoples (who tended to shy away - or die), migrant Europeans (both free and indentured) and, increasingly, Africans imported as slaves.

Though slavery was slow in establishing itself as the dominant form, in time it seemed to provide Europeans with an ideal means of breaking open tropical and semi-tropical land to profitable cultivation. Around the hubs of these migratory and settlement patterns there evolved a remarkable economy: an Atlantic world that was more integrated and more critical than earlier historians imagined. The economies of maritime Europe, of Africa and of the settled Americas were dovetailed into a complex and sophisticated trading system. For the best part of three centuries, the lubricant of that economy was the Africans, shipped across their Atlantic in their millions.

It would be hard to find a historian today who would deny the basically exploitative system that was the Atlantic economy. Most severe towards the Africans, it was lethal for the invaded peoples and rapacious towards the bulk of the Europeans who crossed the Atlantic, whether willingly or under duress. It is also clear, after the detailed work undertaken since Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery , that the bounty that flowed back to metropolitan Europe greatly enhanced European wellbeing and helped shape the nature of British economic advancement. The Many-headed Hydra professes to offer a new interpretation of this process. But the thesis of the book is as opaque as its title. When comprehended (no mean task in so overburdened a text), the argument is also misleading. What the authors imagine to be hidden has been publicly debated for years. The only really hidden aspect of this book is its argument, which, when it manages to surface, is at one and the same time well known and curiously marginal.

There were deep-seated attachments to traditions of liberty, shaped by the turmoil of the English civil war and disseminated by bands of contemporaries, from Quakers to Levellers, men and women. The contagion of liberty was corrosive of established political and economic authority, and spread in the wake of migrations throughout the Americas. There it developed its own variants among individuals and groups seeking an alternative vision and practice to the world in which they lived. Radical debate surfaced throughout the English-speaking Atlantic, on board ship and in the egalitarian climate of frontier and plebeian life. Not surprisingly, it fell on fertile soil in the slave quarters. But was it ever more than a marginal voice whispering in the wilderness? This book confirms what we have known for years - that it was politically ineffectual.

The book's style and structure are hard to follow. Though there are some cleverly worked chapters, and reworkings of familiar themes, it is hard to see the overarching theme. In large part, this is because the structure is cumbersome and over-elaborate. Influenced by E. P. Thompson and C. L. R. James, the book manages neither their verve nor insight. Instead, it ploughs along, top-heavy with portentous prose, creaking with literary and historical imagery (beginning with the title) that confuses more than it enlightens. Whenever the authors need support, they intrude quotes from iconic figures to give their argument muscle. If Aime Cesaire says so, it must be true. Sometimes they slip into absurdity: "Even their dead bodies were capable of subversion." Where was the editor's red pen?

Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have made distinguished contributions to historiography; the one to British history, the other notably on piracy. When this book taps into those areas, it excels. When it tries to put the bits together, it does not work. Not least because there is nothing hidden in the history it tells.

James Walvin is professor of history, University of York.

The Many-headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

Author - Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
ISBN - 1 85984 798 6
Publisher - Verso
Price - £19.00
Pages - 433

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