Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Many-Headed Hydra (A Summary and Review)

Extended Summary

History as we know it has been woefully incomplete. Society has been taught to valorize the statesman, the general, the sovereign, and other sociopolitical elites yet the roles of the common folk have been suppressed, often quite deliberately. Their contributions were then claimed by the Names, who became the victors and visionaries who singlehandedly affected the course of civilization while the toiling masses passed quietly into mists of time. History has always been, after all, "the property of the nation-state" (7).

At least, that is the claim of Peter Linebaugh, Professor of History at the University of Toledo, and Marcus Rediker, Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh, whose collaborative effort The Many-Headed Hydra: Slaves, Sailors, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic seeks to “recover some of the lost history of the multiethnic class that was essential to the rise of capitalism and the global economy" (6-7). An ambitious project, certainly: one that strives to encompass the wildly variegated Atlantic realm of the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries in its dynamic and tumultuous march towards the capitalist ascendancy. The Many-Headed Hydra is an appropriately expansive book composed of diaries; speeches; newspaper articles; radical journals; latter-day scholarship; songs, plays, and poetry; government reports; all manner of official documents; a whole lot of politicking; and a few anachronistic allusions to later people and events. In other words, though exhaustively researched, The Many-Headed Hydra is a far from perfect, though still noteworthy, addition to the field of historical scholarship.

The book opens with a panoramic view of the timeless currents of the mighty Atlantic that eternally encircle the earth, generating waves in sunny Florida that break on the emerald coasts of Ireland. The force of these waves is determined by the strength and duration of the planetary winds, a phenomenon that has always intrigued observers from the renowned Benjamin Franklin to humble Nantucket whalers in the eighteenth century. Human experience in the Atlantic has echoed these natural forces, according to Linebaugh and Rediker, as merchants, migrants, sailors, and slaves traversed these waters and transmitted ideas and experiences from England to the Caribbean and North America and back again (1-2). The preferred metaphor of the time, however, hearkened back to classical mythology. One of the legendary Hercules’ many labors was the destruction of the venomous hydra of Lerna, which grew two heads for every one Hercules severed. To early English capitalists, the cultivation of wilderness, development of commercial agriculture, and the establishment of trade routes and an overseas imperial presence were Herculean struggles, and none was more onerous than the containment of the proletariat hydra. This was an extraordinarily diverse group, consisting of myriad nationalities, races, ethnicities, occupations, both sexes, and a multitude of interrelated radical beliefs, altogether composing a multihued entirety best compared to the motley, a colorful garment worn by the court jesters of the Renaissance who were often given special permission to tell things as they were and mock the king. “Misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows,” Trinculo notes in Shakespeare’s The Tempest as he joins Caliban in a plot to seize the island from the aristocratic Prospero (27-28).

According to Linebaugh and Rediker (whom I will henceforth refer to as “the authors”) the sundry peoples who came to coexist in the so-called “English Atlantic” – including English, Irish, Africans, and Native Americans – nevertheless shared a sort of pan-cultural memory of a communal agricultural existence where private property, grinding poverty, a domineering elite, and capitalist accumulation either did not exist or were minimal at best. Systems similar to the English commons existed in every human society that remained unenclosed, un-privatized, and non-commodious (or so the authors claim – that's a very broad generalization to make). The “manifold values of human mutuality” found expression in the clachans and septs of Ireland and Scotland, the West African village, and Native American long-fallow agriculture (26). (In fact, it has been argued that “Negro African society . . . had already achieved socialism before the coming of the Europeans.”) To the nascent capitalism of England, however, these ways of life constituted a threat to the tightening concentration of economic power. The initial destruction of this traditional way of life in England, the authors assert, is essentially the source of everyone’s troubles, the “crux of the epoch" (17-18). The late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the enclosure of the “commons,” the arable public lands of England, by a small group of wealthy landowners in response to new national and international market opportunities. (Those who physically removed the enclosures, meanwhile, came to be known for the first time as Levellers.) Thousands of rural tenants and smallholders were subsequently evicted and sent wandering, often into towns and cities where they swelled the population and created a new urban underclass.

But remembrance of the old days persisted. Popular memory evoked the times of yore as a laidback era of freedom and abundance. Other well-known and related alternatives included the Garden of Eden, the Classical Golden Age, and a wide variety of popular traditions, including egalitarianism, antinomianism, pacifism, anarchy, and the hunter-gatherer revival. These ideas were perpetuated throughout town and country via colorful pageants featuring motley-clad jesters, adaptations of pagan rites and peasant customs, and fantastic utopian settings. When the Sea-Venture accidentally discovered Bermuda in 1609 on its way to Jamestown, the island’s mild climate and bountiful game called to mind precisely this mythic dreamscape, and the dispossessed passengers rebelled at the idea of going on to the brutal plantation colony of Virginia (22-23).

Jamestown, of course, the first permanent English settlement in the Atlantic “New World,” had been founded as “primarily a business organization with large sums of capital invested by adventurers whose chief interest lay in the returns expected from their investment,” in the words of its chief historian Wesley Frank Craven (15). In reality it was more a combination capitalist venture and “prison without walls,” as publicist Richard Hakluyt put it (15-20). Expropriation and industrial exploitation had resulted in growing numbers of wandering poor forced into lives of crime, often culminating in riots. The poor were a rebellious threat, and “the surest way to prevent Seditions” was “to take away the matter of them. For if there be Fuell prepared, it is hard to tell, whence the Spark shall come, that shall set it on Fire.” (A similar argument was offered in favor of colonizing Ireland.) This early attempt to decapitate the hydra, however, inevitably spawned another head to antagonize the would-be Hercules. Migrants and indentured servants in American soon found potent living examples in the “classless, stateless, and egalitarian societies” of the Native Americans. As historian James Axtell has noted, the Native Americans also did not subscribe to the Protestant notion of work as divine salvation. Following Henry VIII’s “divorce” with Catholicism, parish clerks and clerics had been required to read the “Homily against Idleness” at least once a year and a campaign was waged against the “general leprosy of our piping, potting, feasting, factions, and mis-spending of our time” (The Invasion Within, 150). Many English, however, remained unconvinced, even less so in the wake of forced transportations to Virginia.

Francis Bacon, meanwhile, was not only a major Virginia Company investor but also the author of an essay that would come to exert a major influence on future generations’ response to the "hydra." Desperate to pay off his debts and restore his favor with the king, he was inspired by recent events in Virginia to pen An Advertisement Touching on Holy War, in which he outlined a plan for the extermination of various "undesirable groups," including the Anabaptists. The Anabaptist sect had been formed in the 1630s, when Dorothy Hazzard, a seamstress, “gathered a writing-school master, a glover, a house carpenter, a countryman, a butcher, a farrier, and a young minister to worship together” in her home. She soon attracted all manner of traders, workers, and desperate pregnant women. There was no bowing to the name of Jesus and no kneeling at the Sacrament, but plenty of fervent resistance to the Cavaliers (78). The ascendancy of the Parliamentary forces saw iconoclasm run rampant in Bristol as street preachers pushing social redemption upstaged conventional ministers. Walter Craddock, a leading antinomian, even welcomed “drunkards and adulterers” to his gatherings and asserted that it was only the “simplest people” who fully appreciated the Scripture (80-81).

Also spiritually moving was a definition of glory that would persist among the Atlantic proletariat for centuries after Hazzard and Craddock. The Kingdom of God was no longer some mystical city in the sky but a tangible terrestrial vision. The Gospels described the coming of Jesus and the Transfiguration, an imminent time when divine justice would reign as Christ punished sinners and rewarded the good (83). Related to this millennialism was the egalitarian preaching of the Second Great Awakening in the early eighteenth century and later assumptions concerning the jubilee found among radical preachers, both black and white, in the “New World” based on African oral traditions and the teachings of the Quakers and Diggers in 1640s England (290). “God is no respecter of persons” was the premise of many an itinerant holy man in America, such as George Whitefield, who considered slave rebellions in the South a “judgment” and “visitation” from God (190-191). Jubileee, a legal practice of property redistribution in the Old Testament, was re-imagined as part of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah by early Christians and best articulated by Robert Wedderburn for contemporary purposes in the late 1700s. It would be a restoration of land to its original owners, a year of no work, debt cancellation, and the freedom of slaves and servants; as well as a dies irae, dies illa for the oppressive and tyrannical capitalist elite (290-291). Meanwhile, John Hughson, a prominent figure in the aborted New York Conspiracy of 1741, was known to administer binding oaths to other plotters, from Afro-Hispanic sailors to dispossessed Irishmen, on the Bible (191).

Such a racial and ethnic mixing was a defining characteristic of the “hydra.” It was in Barbados in 1649 that enslaved Irishmen – along with Africans, Native Americans, and other Europeans, including veterans of the English Civil War – secretly planned to seize the wealthy plantation island for themselves from their despotic masters. The insurrection was put down and authorities subsequently worked to drive a wedge between black slaves and white servants by upholding the latter as a labor elite of artisans and overseers (123-127). It was a tactic that would be repeated time and again: John Hughson and other white plotters in the New York Conspiracy were condemned as “monsters in nature” and a “disgrace to their complexion,” while Hughson himself was “blacker than a negro” and “the scandal of his complexion and the disgrace of human nature!” Black participants in the scheme were accordingly given greater punishment than their white counterparts (209).

In terms of occupation, perhaps the most significant head of the hydra were sailors and pirates, who practiced what Linebaugh and Rediker call hydrarchy, which they define as “the organization of the maritime state from above, and the self-organization of sailors below.” As ships and their crews were the true basis of English imperial power, the Cromwell government in 1649 initiated the practice of impressments and accompanying terror tactics to keep sailors on commercial and naval vessels in line (144-145). By the close of the seventeenth century, human exploitation had been established in four fundamental ways: the big commercial estate as the basis of agriculture, the petty production of yeomen and artisans, the putting-out system, and the ship, which unified the other three aspects of colonial capitalism. A large number of wage laborers were set to series of specified synchronized tasks under a rigid hierarchy of command that subordinated humanity to the machine. In other words, the seventeenth-century ship can be seen as the prototype of the infamous nineteenth-century factory system. Not surprisingly, mutinies were a constant threat despite the polygot nature of the crews. As more ships were seized by desperate sailors, the buccaneering tradition was born and the Jamaica Discipline, or the Law of the privateers, was established, based loosely upon the peasant utopian myth of the Land of Cockaygne. Its primary developers were what one English official in the Caribbean called “‘the outcasts of all nations’ – the convicts, prostitutes, beggars, vagabonds, escaped slaves and indentured servants, religious radicals, and political prisoners. . .” Many had formed multiracial maroon communities in frontier wastes beyond the reach of colonial authority (158).

Pirates routinely seized vessels, redistributed the cargo among themselves, and punished captains reported by their crews to be authoritarian and brutal. They created a riotous world of drink and camaraderie, what one Bartholomew Roberts called “a merry life and a short one.” Most ominously, however, they not only interfered with the slave trade by plundering ships headed for the African West Coast, but also threatened to bring their libertarian culture onshore (168-169). Merchants clamored for protection, prompting the passage of an anti-piracy bill in Parliament in 1722. Pirates, of course, had been another one of Francis Bacon’s groups to be exterminated, and such was their fate by end of the decade (170). Their legacy nevertheless survived in the hydra underground. Former buccaneers brought memories of hydrarchy to the New York Conspiracy twenty years later as they congregated in waterfront taverns with slaves, soldiers, and all manner of social outcasts (177-179).

Indeed, the Jamaica Discipline was one of many hydra experiences that went on, in the world of Linebaugh and Rediker, to drive the American Revolution. It was largely sailors following the tradition of hydrarchy who demonstrated against impressment and the Stamp Act, inspiring Paine and Jefferson to articulate their protests in refined rhetoric that reached a broader audience (214). The multiracial nature of the rioters also helped shift the emphasis from the rights of Englishmen to universal human liberty and freedom. After observing the motley uprisings in Boston, a young Samuel Adams founded the Independent Advertiser in 1747, in which he supported the right to self-defense and called for political and social equality in language that reached back to the Levellers and their Agreement of the People a century earlier in the English Civil War. In 1748 Adams insisted that “All men are by Nature on a Level; born with an equal Share of Freedom, and endow’d with Capacities nearly alike" (216-217). Although the disorderly nature of proletariat unrest eventually prompted a reactionary movement from moderate genteel patriots, the expression of independence and self-determination survived in the Declaration of Independence, granting legitimacy to later generations of activists. At the end of the day, Linebaugh and Rediker conclude, the rise of human rights, respect for diversity, religious tolerance, egalitarian thought, and the various forms of socialism and communism were not simply creations of a select group of Enlightenment philosophes, nor were they even strictly European, or “Western,” in origin (238). They coalesced in the interactions among varying races, religions, and cultures during the Atlantic colonial years, a reality that has been long suppressed by elite interests.

The Critique

I know what you're probably thinking by now: "WOW! I never learned ANY of this!" It really does sound like one hell of a tour-de-force, doesn't it? Until you look closer, however, and realize that things seem to fall into place a bit too easily. The way the book flows so smoothly, tidily binding together actors and events thousands of miles and several centuries apart. There are some times The Many-Headed Hydra feels more like a novel than a history book. And that's a problem.

Let's start by examining the basic structure on which the work is built. The Many-Headed Hydra is written in two modes of historiography: Atlantic history and Marxist history. The former is a new discipline (its very first full-length textbook was only just published in 2007) that seeks to analyze the convergence of myriad African, Caribbean, European, North American, and South American societies following Columbus's "discovery" of the New World. Early America, it is argued, cannot be studied in isolation: it was an integral part of a highly interconnected trade route which also conveyed people, culture, and ideas. As Ronald Takaki asserts in his book A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1993), America has always been a diverse place. "What happens," he asks, "to borrow the words of Adrienne Rich, 'when someone with the authority of a teacher' describes our society – and 'you are not in it'?" (16). Atlantic history addresses precisely this issue of inclusion, as it as it emphasizes not only the history of the multitude of cultures in the present-day United States, but also necessarily incorporates the story of other nations and other parts of the world as well. This is especially important in an era where the Atlantic is now only one aspect of a truly global society.

Marxist history, however, is problematic. It basically posits an ahistorical force (class tension/warfare) that 1) overrides all historical factors in the molding of human society and 2) tends towards certain inevitable outcomes. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob’s Telling the Truth About History summarizes Marxist history as “a theoretical explanation for the whole of human history as well as for each particular epoch within it” that draws largely from Hegel’s conceptions of the “World-Spirit,” an embodiment of transcendent truth found in the histories of disparate nations (71, 65-66). This idea of history as a universal story built on a singular base superstructure, however, has actually fallen out of favor in many circles, especially in the wake of postmodernist attacks on the idea of a “meta-narrative” as inherently political and therefore obfuscating (88, 230-232). In other words, Marxist historiography is essentially an artificial molding of history into a pre-conditioned set of ideological parameters. Marcus Rediker himself states explicitly that he "[tries] to combine scholarship with activism, the study of movements from below with the making of movements from below" in order to learn from this sort of history, be inspired by it and "use it as we work toward a more just and humane future." That right there should send up a red flag.

Obviously, The Many-Headed Hydra unfolds beautifully as the tragic account of the oppressed. Outrage seethes beneath a veneer of scholarly detachment, and the overall work is emotionally powerful. Yet I find myself thinking of those ancient dialogues of Plato, particularly Ion and The Republic, in which poets and rhetoricians are criticized for the tendency of their eloquence to induce their listeners into a state of emotional delirium that veritably puts them outside themselves and convinces them, without any use of reason or rationality, that they are now knowledgeable about a particular subject (such as war, from hearing Ion recite Homer), or, even worse, tempts them to take abandon "virtue." Now, I am not saying at all that The Many-Headed Hydra is somehow corrupting in its compelling narrative. What I am doing is pointing out the danger of allowing oneself to be "sucked" into something based on its emotional appeal without subjecting it cerebral analysis. Because once you push past the poignant allure of a tome extolling the heroic struggles of the underdog, The Many-Headed Hydra really has some explaining to do.

Clearly, this post has gotten ridiculously long, so I'll only point out one thing which I noticed immediately. If you refer back to my extended summary, you will note that Linebaugh and Rediker share the claim that “Negro African society . . . had already achieved socialism before the coming of the Europeans” (they were quoting someone else there). Technically speaking, that is true. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa did not, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, have private property in land. But what is conveniently left out there is that they did have property in human beings. Whereas European rulers sought to conquer territory, African monarchs saw themselves as conquerors of peoples. Nor do the authors (Linebaugh and Rediker), at any point, discuss the African complicity in the transatlantic slave trade, which plays a huge role in their Marxist narrative. African slaves were prisoners of wars with other Africans. When Europeans turned to Africa for human labor, they found a thriving slave market already in existence. Africans had been selling one another for decades; selling to Europeans simply meant the opening of a new market. But nowhere do you find this in The Many-Headed Hydra, in which a few Rich White Guys destroyed Africa's pre-Raphaelite paradise, just as they did the Indians' and the Anglo-Irish peasants'. To put it succinctly: Africa's long-standing slave trade does not fit into the authors' historical worldview. One cannot help but to wonder what else the authors omitted. I can also point to anachronisms such as talking about Marcus Gravy and Nelson Mandela and quoting Heart of Darkness (out of context) in a chapter about events in the seventeenth century, but I'm not even going to waste my breath.

So did I like The Many-Headed Hydra or not? I have called it "far from perfect, though still noteworthy," recapped it with dramatic flourishes, and criticized it for distorting history. Honestly, I can't give a solid answer. I have mixed feelings about it. As a writer, I love a good story, particularly one told with feeling and eloquence. The Many-Headed Hydra really is an enjoyable read if you approach it as more of a novel than a history book. But then again, a history book is exactly what it's supposed to be! In all fairness, I should also confess that it literally inspired my entire term paper for a research seminar I took on Renaissance Utopias (an English course) and even aided my studies by providing good source material in its bibliography pages. And it really is very thought-provoking – some have even argued that that should be the end goal of teaching and scholarship, rather than a simple didactic drilling of facts. All in all, I have to say that I would recommend The Many-Headed Hydra – but for a graduate course only, where the students will already have enough historical background to critically engage it.

Note: all page numbers used in this post refer to the paperback version of The Many-Headed Hydra.


Anonymous said...

i got distracted by the fishes

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