The sea monster that spawned liberty

<i>The Many-Headed Hydra: the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic</i> by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (Verso, &pound;20)
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The Independent Culture

In all eras, political élites have appropriated symbols from classical myth to legitimise their own oligarchy. In the 250 years from Elizabeth I to the accession of Victoria, the preferred symbol for the British ruling class was Hercules, symbol of order and progress. Conversely, the urban proletariat - labourers, indentured servants, soldiers, sailors, African slaves, the criminal classes and groups such as religious radicals and pirates - were regarded as the heads of the hydra slain by Hercules. Yet for the authors of this fine "history from below", they are the true heroes of a centuries-long class war.

In all eras, political élites have appropriated symbols from classical myth to legitimise their own oligarchy. In the 250 years from Elizabeth I to the accession of Victoria, the preferred symbol for the British ruling class was Hercules, symbol of order and progress. Conversely, the urban proletariat - labourers, indentured servants, soldiers, sailors, African slaves, the criminal classes and groups such as religious radicals and pirates - were regarded as the heads of the hydra slain by Hercules. Yet for the authors of this fine "history from below", they are the true heroes of a centuries-long class war.

America is the key. The New World was a garbage tip to which the "dangerous classes" could be consigned. Yet an élite that used the axe and the noose to maintain social control on land had to use even more bloody expedients on board ship. Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker do not shrink from a recital of the gruesome forms of punishment practiced at sea. On the other hand, the maritime world of the Americas and beyond gave the dispossessed the chance to sample unheard-of liberties. Living among the savages as a way out of the nightmare of "civilisation" had a long history, culminating in the Bounty mutiny.

The authors' main thesis is simple. The discovery of sea routes to the Americas and East Indies marked a new stage in history, making it more important for the élite to keep the dispossessed classes and expropriated nations - factory workers, plantation slaves, sailors on the one hand; the Irish, Africans and West Indians on the other - under tighter control. Beginning with the fears expressed by that arch-reactionary Francis Bacon, progressing through the 1647 Putney debates and Cromwell's suppression of the Levellers and the Diggers (at the same time as his atrocities in Ireland), the authors arrive at the 18th century, where they are acknowledged experts.

We are shown the many heads of the hydra, and the acts of revolt, resistance and rebellion to which class tensions led. There are fascinating sections on the proletarian rebellion in Naples in 1647, the similar rising in New York in 1741, Tacky's slave revolt in 1760, and the Irish rebel Edward Despard's 1802 conspiracy to assassinate George III and seize both the Tower of London and the Bank of England.

Battle raged over the enclosure of commons, working methods in plantations and factories, discipline on ships and, in general, the attempt to convert large portions of mankind into hewers of wood and drawers of water. The most significant phase of the struggle came from 1680 to 1760, when Atlantic capitalism stabilised "the maritime state" - a financial and nautical system designed to operate Atlantic markets. The sailing ship - the engine of globalisation - was therefore half-ship and half-factory. To those below deck it was jail with the added risk of being drowned, as Dr Johnson defined shipboard life.

The chief resistance to the maritime state came from pirates. Their short-lived seaborne supremacy for a while (1670-1730) blocked the notorious "middle passage" of the slave trade between Africa and America. This prevented capital accumulation, was a "fetter" on capitalism and - obviously - had to be destroyed.

The sections on piracy are perhaps the best parts in a generally splendid book. But even more seminal for historical research are the many vistas Linebaugh and Rediker open up in the history of blacks, women, the United Irishmen, the "Left" in the American War of Independence, and religious millenarianism. Strikingly, the authors write from the heart as well as the brain. Having established that the years after 1780 were a kind of general Thermidorean reaction in the Anglo-American world, they point to 1802 as an annus horribilis - when the revolts of Despard, Robert Emmet and Toussaint l'Ouverture all came to grief. In elegiac mood, they conclude: "These men were peaks of the Atlantic mountains, whose principles of freedom, of humanity and of justice belonged to a single range."

The reviewer's book 'Villa and Zapata' is published by Cape

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