Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 322-329.

Review: The Many-Headed Hydra

The Many-Headed Hydra:
Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
By Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker (Verso, 2000)
Hardback/433pp/£19/ISBN 1 85984 798 6

"Who are the oppressors but the Nobility and Gentry; and who are oppressed, if not the Yeoman, the Farmer, the Tradesman and the Labourer? ... your slavery is their liberty, your poverty is their prosperity; yea, in brief, your honouring of them, dishonoureth the commonality... Unlord those that are lorded by you."
- Ranter Laurence Clarkson, 1647 (p. 81)

The Many-Headed Hydra is a long awaited (almost 20 years in the making) tour-de-force of radical history from below. Avoiding the usual categories that constrain history within the limits of the nation state, the authors take an internationalist approach in order to study the way people have fought against these categories and have tried to escape from and resist states by moving across borders and organising across races.

Nowadays when globalisation is the buzzword most used to understand capitalism, it is worth remembering that capitalism has always been global. Linebaugh and Rediker make this point by referring to the Virginia Company - the origin of English imperialism - as a "new world-trade organization". (p. 15) This book is about the origins of capitalism in the first wave of globalisation in the 17th and 18th centuries and about the resistance that it encountered. At school we are taught about the great era of exploration and discovery - we are not taught about the slavery, genocide, and exploitation that it entailed, nor about the mutinies, slave revolts and runaway maroon communities of ex-slaves that resisted it.

The authors' contention is that the 'discovery' of the Americas signalled a new stage in human history. It kick-started capitalism, launched global maritime trade, created the biggest movement of peoples in history and transformed the world. They take this as their starting point and focus on the resistance to this new globalisation. They then follow the thread of this resistance and the twists and turns it makes up to the point which normal 'labour history' tends to take as its starting point.

Thus The Many-Headed Hydra is a book of Atlantic history - about the three-way traffic between Africa, America and Europe. Everyone is familiar with the famous triangular slave trade which built the fortunes of Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow and London. But it is inevitable that not only slaves, sugar and tobacco travelled on the ships. News travelled too - underground news of slave revolts, of revolutions in Haiti, France and America; new ideas and new tactics. People travelled too - radicals who had stirred up trouble in England were transported overseas and spread their ideas, while travellers who had seen in the indigenous peoples of the Americas that a free life in harmony with nature was possible, brought their ideas back to Europe.

Linebaugh and Rediker use a few particular episodes and a few individual people to draw out a series of themes that permeate the whole book. They do this successively, using one telling episode to make a wide range of points. And they find a series of metaphors that recur throughout the historical period they're looking at. Chief among these is the myth of Hercules and the hydra, which was continually used by ruling class propagandists as a way of explaining the difficulty of their task of forging an empire. One of the twelve labours of Hercules was to slay the monstrous hydra, a snake-like beast with many heads. Every time he cut one off, another two grew in its place. He eventually killed it by using fire to seal the severed stumps, thus preventing the heads from regrowing. The Anglo-American ruling class saw themselves as Hercules trying to discipline rebellious subjects that would simply re-appear in new and more threatening forms every time they seemed to have conquered them. The building of empire was a 'Herculean' task and at every turn they were confronted by new manifestations of their amorphous enemy - pirates, rebellious slaves, independent women, religious radicals, 'war-like' tribal peoples... "the rabble", which "like a Monstrous Hydra" would "hiss against their Soveraigns Regal Power and Authority." (p. 29)


The history of the ruling-class Hercules' struggle with the hydra of resistance is driven by four central themes that determine the whole period covered in the book: enclosure, terror, co-operation and resistance, and the struggle for alternative ways of life.

The central thing that governs it all is enclosure or expropriation. It is the enclosure of common lands in England, beginning slowly in the late Middle Ages and then rapidly speeding up through to the mid-18th century that provides the essential historical basis for capitalism. To get the poor to work, you had to take away their land. Once the land was denied to the people, they had no choice but to work, making money for the owners of the plantations, ships and workshops. Huge numbers of displaced people were redeployed overseas to populate the colonies. The main argument advanced by the propagandists of English colonialism was that colonisation would provide a way for England to rid itself of the "swarmes of idle persons" enclosure had produced. (p. 16) The separation of the people from the land in England was mirrored overseas as the Irish were dispossessed, Africans enslaved and Native Americans displaced.

May Day 1640: At the outbreak of the English Revolution, 'prentices and seamen break open the prisons and storm the Archbishop of Canterbury's house in Lambeth.

Enclosure and the vast changes that were taking place in society (the beginnings of industrial exploitation, a huge military mobilisation) prompted massive and gloriously-named rebellions across the country as handicraft workers and peasants sought to preserve their old ways of life: the Beggars' Christmas Riot of 1582, the Plaisterers' Insurrection of 1586, the Felt-Makers' Riot of 1591, the Southwark Candle-Makers' Riot of 1592. Those who resisted enclosure, tearing down the fences and filling in the ditches were for the first time called Levellers.


This resistance to enclosure naturally imsplied a response: terror was used to make possible the basic conditions for capitalist development. At home, in the colonies and at sea, gruesome punishments were enacted to keep the poor at their work, prevent the spread of radical ideas and prevent colonists running off to join the enemy.

Transportation to the colonies was a punishment and one which not only kept the poor in their place but also profited the state, rather than costing it anything. The conquered Irish, as well as Gypsies and Africans were forcibly deported out of England. Thousands upon thousands of those found guilty of even minor crimes were transported to the colonies. In a sermon of 1622, John Donne promised that the Virginia Company would "sweep your streets, and wash your dores, from idle persons, and the children of idle persons, and imploy them: and truely, if the whole Countrey were such a Bridewell [prison], to force idle persons to work, it had a good use." (p. 59) As the authors point out, the propagandists and planners of colonisation wanted America to function as a prison.

However, it was not a prison from which escape was impossible. English soldiers and settlers in the new plantations in Ireland would regularly run away to join the Irish. And in the New World, settlers in England's Virginia colony refused to work, mutinied and "did Runne Away unto the Indyans". In 1611 some of these renegades were recaptured. Sir Thomas Dale, the governor of the colony "in A moste severe mannor caused [them] to be executed... Some he apointed to be hanged Some burned Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to death." The purpose of this was "to terrefy the rest for Attemptinge the Lyke." (p. 34)

Co-operation and Resistance

The two final main themes in the book tell the other side of the story. All the people taken from their homes and moved around the world were thrown together in new combinations. In order to build empire many workers had to be brought together to sail the ships and fell the forests, build the forts, enclose and tame the land. These people had to learn to speak together, learn to work together, whether they were from Africa, Spain or Suffolk. And often these new combinations of workers who met together in prisons, in the holds of ships, in work gangs and on plantations, hit back at their masters as the co-operation they had learned in order to build the empire, they used to undo it as Africans and Irish rose in rebellion together, sailors of many countries dropped out and turned pirate together, and settlers ran off to join the Indians.

Radical Alternatives

The final theme is related to this. What these people were struggling for were alternative ways of living. And this wasn't utopian dreaming. The common lands in England had only been destroyed recently. Commoning self-sufficiency was a living memory for many. Slaves taken from Africa had been taken from communal village societies. And also in the Americas, the Native population provided a clear example to the early settlers of a functioning society without the state, wage-slavery, money, class divisions or exploitation. Virginia's Indians had no conception of work in the sense that Europeans understood it: William Strachey, the secretary of the Virginia company, reported that they were "for the most parte of the year idle," although they were living well while the European colonists were starving. (p. 24) All these elements combined with popular utopian traditions (the Classical Golden Age, the Garden of Eden, the communism of the early Christians etc.) to provide a very clear alternative to early colonial society.

The English Revolution

Linebaugh and Rediker trace these themes through the following two and a half centuries of English imperialism - a cycle of victories and defeats for the diverse masses that made up the various heads of the hydra. The initial period of terror and enclosure under the Tudors which launched the early colonial system and the slave trade was a defeat as commoners lost their commons, Ireland was conquered and unwilling colonists were shipped out to America.

But the new combinations of people thrown together by this process hit back in the English Revolution of the 1640s. The Civil War between King and Parliament unleashed a vast questioning and re-valuing of everything in the country. The revolutionary forces led by Oliver Cromwell and the militant Puritans abolished censorship of the press, did away with repressive courts and executed the King by decapitation in 1649. They then dissolved the monarchy and the House of Lords and declared a republic. In the tumult a huge amount of new radical ideas - democratic, anarchic, communistic, heretical, libertarian - were thrown up in an atmosphere in which everything was up for grabs. Radical groups such as the Levellers and Diggers sprang up, reclaiming the common lands and spreading subversion among the troops. Strange heretical sects proliferated, preaching that Christ would shortly return and establish paradise on earth, casting down the powerful and the mighty.

The Diggers declared in 1649 that private property was the work of Satan, and that the land should be worked in common with no enclosure. They took direct action to re-occupy the commons, starting about a dozen land communes across England at the height of the revolution. They stated that "the earth is made by our Creator to be a common Treasury of livelihood to one equall with another." (p. 117)

For their part, the Ranters published a pamphlet in 1650 called A Justification of the Mad Crew, which declared that God "pulleth down the mighty from their Throne, and sets up men of low degree." They held that God's glory was to be found "among the rogues, theeves, whoremasters, and base persons of the world." (p. 85) The Ranters wanted one world human community with no states and the people of Christendom, Islam and Africa to become "one people and one body". They were open libertines, "children of pleasure", seeing God's glory in "dancing, lying with one another, kissing pure and perfect". (p. 86)

Had the revolution lasted, the history of England and the world might have been very different. The commons could have been preserved; the slave trade might have been abolished. Capitalism could have been stopped before it had really properly started.

The Counter-Revolution

"The Sailor's Return, or Valour Rewarded" (1783). "The image of the freebooter as a man with a patched eye, a peg leg, and a hook for a hand suggests an essential truth: sailoring was a dangerous line of work." (p. 164)

Cromwell and the merchants and capitalists who backed him needed the poor and the working classes to make their revolution for them. And so for a while there was a remarkable flourishing of radicalism, but once the republic was established and Cromwell was safely in power, he turned on the radicals and crushed them.

The Cromwellian counter-revolution split the movement. The more radical elements were executed, imprisoned, pushed underground or forced to flee overseas, while others hastily rewrote their history to deny that they had ever been radicals. Those who had once, in the heat of revolutionary fervour, opposed the slave trade, now became some of its leading figures.

Once he was securely in power, Cromwell pursued an aggressive policy to challenge the Dutch for naval supremacy and to make England the pre-eminent naval and slaving power. English involvement in the slave trade hugely expanded after 1649, and by the end of the century England was the primary slaving nation in the Atlantic.

The Diaspora

The counter-revolution begun under Cromwell was made complete by the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. But defeat is never total: a radical diaspora developed, spread around the Atlantic world, as Ranters, Quakers and erstwhile revolutionaries left for the Americas. It seemed that rebellion had been banished after the 1660s. And indeed in England the ruling class had the upper hand for the next century. However, the radical spirit of the English revolution had not died, it had simply fled to the four corners of the earth.

There was a series of revolts across the Caribbean and American colonies in the late 17th century. But eventually, after some years of intermittent war, the colonies were made safe. The rebel war against slavery and empire had become increasingly difficult on land. The rebels were driven into the sea. But not to their deaths - as one hydra's head was cut off, another emerged. The same multi-ethnic class of dropouts now took to the seas as pirates and buccaneers.

The Commons at Sea

In the near-century between the 1670s and the mid-18th century, radical struggles on land seemed to disappear, but a new threat arose at sea to challenge the plans of the English elite. The radical ideas of the English revolution, exiled by the Cromwellian counter-revolution, found a new home on board the sailing ship, where they circulated around the Atlantic world.

Radicalism came easily to 17th century seamen, many of whom were press-ganged into the Navy and were effectively slaves. Sailors were subject to the most vicious regime of punishment imaginable in order to enforce work-discipline. Sailing ships were the engines driving the development of early capitalism but they were also the scene of sustained resistance, as sailors rioted, mutinied, deserted, and went on strike. The most developed expression of this seamen's resistance was piracy. All these practices and tactics were carried and communicated around the world by sailors. The sailing ship served as "a forcing house of internationalism" (p. 151) in which working people of all different races and backgrounds were thrown together and in which news and ideas from all over the world were exchanged. Sailors even developed their own pidgin language to communicate between speakers of different languages. This became a language of resistance, spoken in port cities around the Atlantic and conveniently incomprehensible to landlubbers.

By the end of the 17th century England was a global superpower. The threat of piracy was the one thing to cast a shadow over this happy prospect. The pirates of the late 17th and early 18th century - the 'golden age' of piracy - were multi-racial (many were escaped slaves) and libertarian. It was said that "there is so little Government and Subordination among [pirates], that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders." (p. 163) They were essentially multi-racial maroon communities at war with slavery, similar to those renegade tribes hidden deep in the forests of the Americas, but they took to the high seas while others hid in the mountains or jungle.

A massive campaign of terror was launched to extinguish the threat of piracy. This was mainly due to the threat it posed to the slave trade. A law was drafted for the suppression of piracy, a naval squadron was sent to West Africa and large numbers of pirates were captured and executed. By 1730 piracy was defeated, but again, the radicals, although defeated, were not destroyed - the tradition of maritime radicalism continued as an underground current, appearing in mutinies, strikes and rebellions around the Atlantic world.

Return to Land

The spirit of revolt that had fled overseas returned in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with a vengeance, as the same unbroken thread of resistance showed itself again in the American revolution. The successful revolutions in America, France, and Haiti, frightened the British ruling class. And they had good reason to be frightened as the radicalism they thought they had conquered reared its head again in a series of attempted insurrections in Britain. The radicals were fighting for the same things they had been 100 or 200 years before - against slavery and for the commons.

The harbinger of the storm to come was a wave of insurrections that ripped through the Caribbean slave colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. Governor Mathews of the Leeward Islands said, "the contagion of rebellion is spread among these islands more than I apprehend is discovered". (p. 193) This hurricane hit land in the 1741 New York waterfront conspiracy when sailors and slaves organised together to burn the city to the ground and stockpiled guns, gunpowder and ammunition in a local dockside bar.

The New York conspiracy was discovered and never bore fruit. Its leaders were executed and the colonial authorities took efforts to ensure it could never happen again. They attempted to break up the urban mob, turn black against white and import less rebellious slaves.

Inspiring all the rebellions of this time were the ongoing decades-long struggles of the maroons in Jamaica and Surinam. In 1740 the Maroon War in Jamaica ended with the British Imperial power conceding to the maroons and granting them land, autonomy and freedom in return for an end to their guerrilla war against the slave state.

Despite its ultimately conservative conclusion, the American Revolution of 1776 was initially made by sailors, slaves and the dispossessed multi-racial urban mob. But this was followed by an American counter-revolution as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and other leading figures of the revolution distanced themselves from the mob and acted to preserve property, privilege and slavery. The constitution of the new federal republic granted it the power to repress domestic dissent while at the same time strengthening the institution of slavery.

But nevertheless, the American experience inspired others, in Britain, Ireland, France, Haiti and elsewhere. Sailors and slaves carried its message across the Atlantic, inspiring the abolitionist movement in Britain, revolts in the Caribbean and the early pan-African movement.

Back to Britain

In 1803 an Irish army officer named Colonel Edward Despard was executed for attempting to raise a revolutionary army in England and Ireland and to declare a republic. This was not so implausible at the time. The American, French and Haitian revolutionary wars had all occurred within recent memory. The revolt of the United Irishmen had been a mere five years before in 1798. Moreover, his conspiracy occurred in the context of widespread resistance to early industry in England. There were regular outbreaks of proto-Luddite machine breaking and arson. Moreover, the threat of invasion from revolutionary France loomed large. Many of the conspirators were soldiers or sailors and they knew what they were doing.

The plan was to fire on the King's carriage with a cannon as he made his annual trip to Parliament and then to seize the Tower of London and the Bank of England before signalling to the rest of the country to rise. The ultimate aim was to implement the "wild and Levelling principle of Universal Equality" as his trial judge put it. (p. 281)

Despard's wife, Catherine, was an African-American who Despard had met in Belize, and who had returned with him to London. She too was a revolutionary and together they were emblematic of the Atlantic struggles of the era, reaching from Africa and Ireland to Central America and back to London. Belize was notorious as a haunt of buccaneers, who had interbred with escaped slaves, transported rebels, and the indigenous inhabitants of the area, to produce a sea-going polyglot people who lived in a propertyless, stateless form of commonism.

Back in London, the couple joined the growing movement against slavery. Despard ended up imprisoned for debt, and while in jail he met insurrectionists and mutineers of all sorts. His conspiracy joined slaves, commoners, craftsmen degraded by the introduction of machinery, mutinous sailors, and the Irish still wanting to fulfil the ideals of 1798. Despard's defeat did not end the attempts at revolution in England. In 1820 the Cato Street conspirators planned to kill the cabinet while they were at dinner and then to seize key targets in London, giving the signal for a national uprising.

The historical period covered by the book ends here, at the moment of possibility created by the upheavals of the late 18th century. England came very close to a revolution in the late 18th and early 19th century. Of course we know that this didn't happen, but at the time, the future was open and a new world could be discerned on the horizon.

Missing From History

"A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows", c. 1773. The revolutionary poet and mystic William Blake etched this engraving to illustrate Captain John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years Expedition. This was an account of the war against the maroons of Surinam. The maroons were escaped slaves who lived in the rainforest and defeated the Dutch imperialists in a guerrilla war against being returned to slavery. The Governor of Surinam described the maroons as an "invisible enemy", who "shoots you down like ducks in the swamps". (p. 4)

Working class struggle and working class power is edited out of history. Even those social historians who pay attention to the lives of those who built the world we live in rather than just those that reaped the benefit of their labours, still often present the working class as victims, as powerless (for example a recent radio series on working class history called 'Voices of the Powerless'). That is the history of the working class but written from the perspective of the elite. This book redresses the balance a bit, presenting working class victories and showing how the collective power and the threat to capitalism represented by slaves, sailors, peasants and the indigenous altered the course of history. This is a message of hope - that we can change the world, and indeed that our political ancestors did. The changes they achieved we still live with today as well as their revolutionary legacy to inspire us to further pursue their goals.

These voices have been silenced by the actual violence of the noose, the ducking stool, the rack, the gun and the sword, and also by "the violence of abstraction in the writing of history, the severity of history that has long been the captive of the nation-state, which remains in most studies the largely unquestioned framework of analysis." (p. 7)

The authors are Marxists - of sorts, and this book is partly following in the tradition of the famous Marxist historians of the post-war years (EP Thompson, EJ Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill etc.). EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) starts with the formation of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) in 1792 - supposedly the first working class political organisation in Britain, and presumably, the world. Linebaugh and Rediker trace the history of struggle that comes before this point and the defeats that led the LCS eventually to define itself in national, racial terms as being for the English working class rather than the international, multi-racial oppressed multitudes of the earth. They say, "Organizations such as the LCS would eventually make their peace with the nation, as the working class became national, English." (p. 352) As John Zerzan has pointed out in 'Who Killed Ned Ludd?',[1] the very point which traditional Marxists pick as the marking the beginning of working class history and proletarian struggle, is exactly the point at which it is effectively dead and buried within the mechanisms of union negotiating and electoral politics. The Many-Headed Hydra ends where 'normal' labour history begins - with the birth of the 'proper' 'full-grown' 'mature' industrial working class - which is actually a product of defeat. The unrooted peasantry, the transitional class of ex-peasants and not-yet-proles (not dismissed by Linebaugh and Rediker as "primitive rebels", like Hobsbawm does[2]), resisted being turned into 'full grown' industrial workers for decades upon decades. When they finally lost, the point of their defeat was taken as the beginning of the 'proper' working class, a 'proper' working class which is also a product of defeat, inasmuch as it is defined as working and also by separate national, white and male histories. The separate national histories we are taught in school and the separation between labour history, black history and women's history are also products of defeat.

The separation of these disciplines of history is in a way an ideological attempt to prevent links being made, to keep people in separate categories and to stop, for example, the white working class connecting their history with black history. It is also ideological in that in teaching national histories, much of the point is to reinforce the idea of the nation (which is essentially a fiction), whereas of course actual history never stopped when it got to the borders of the state. As we know from real life, actions and inspirations and causes and effects flow internationally.

Race Against Time

This book is also a story of a time before the working class was so divided - when the white workers had not yet been taught to hate the black workers. Indeed, these divide and rule tactics were introduced to defeat and destroy the multi-racial struggles that had threatened to shake the early capitalist world to its foundations.

In the turmoil and revolutionary upheavals of the 1790s the 'white race' was invented as a specific concept. The idea of race was created as a weapon to divide the working class, most importantly the Africans and the Irish. Ireland was the first colony of the British Empire - the first model and precursor for everything that was to come later, and the Irish had always been regarded like the Africans as a sub-human race of barbarians. However, in order to defeat the spectre of a united Irish-African revolt, the elite started to propagate the idea of white racial supremacy, removing the Irish from their previous sub-human status and inviting them inside the white man's club, thus trying to break the Irish-African alliance.

This attempt at inventing racial divisions took force especially after the revolution in Haiti. In the revolutionary war in Haiti the island's slaves organised themselves into a force that was to defeat the armies of three empires to finally win their freedom and create the first free black country in the world. This profoundly shook the ruling class in America and in all the European empires. Linebaugh and Rediker say: "When casualties began to mount after the British expeditions against Haiti in 1795-96, panic - and racism - spread through society. This was... the very moment when the biological category of race was being formed and disseminated in Britain and America". (p. 352) One example of how these categories changed is the New York waterfront rebellion of 1741, when a collection of sailors, slaves, workers and the down-and-outs of New York's dockside slums decided to stage an uprising "to burn the town and kill as many white people as [they] could". (p. 208) What is interesting here is that many of the people involved in the plot were, in our terms, 'white'. So they clearly didn't mean it in the sense that would be interpreted now. 'White' was a term that didn't at this point apply to the Irish, for example, and was meant to refer to those in respectable society - the rich. This is not so bizarre as it may seem - remember the American Declaration of Independence which states that all men are created equal and yet many of those signing it were slave owners and clearly did not intend for their slaves to be granted these rights - obviously 'men' was a category which did not include black men.

The sort of unity seen in 1741 became unthinkable afterwards, when the labour movement became for the white, national working class and pan-Africanism developed to meet the utopian needs of blacks. Both sides of this equation specifically defined themselves by race, whereas that had not been the case a few decades earlier.

Against Globalisation

When I started writing this review I originally wanted to include everything. Suffice to say that there are far, far more amazing, inspiring, crazy stories of insurrection, riot, sabotage, and revolution in this book than I have space to mention.

The value and the lesson of such radical history is to teach us not to forget; that our future struggles might be enlightened by what has gone before. And Linebaugh and Rediker's proto-proletariat and its struggles against the rise of Atlantic capitalism can teach us some things that still have relevance. Primarily that the strength of resistance is in its hydra-headedness: it is the ability of rebels and revolutionaries to change and shift and merge, to disappear and then re-appear again in new places and in new forms, that keeps the forces of authority on their toes. And also that there will always be resistance, and resistance will always be international - when the struggle seems to have been vanquished, it will re-emerge in another unexpected place, on another level, but still with the same dreams held in our hearts.

And as if to demonstrate the cyclical nature of the struggle against empire, history caught up with the authors of the book. As they were putting the finishing touches to their work, a whole new international movement against globalisation sprang up to renew the international struggle for liberation:

"The globalising powers have a long reach and endless patience. Yet the planetary wanderers do not forget, and are ever ready from Africa to the Caribbean to Seattle to resist slavery and restore the commons." (p. 353).


  1. Elements of Refusal by John Zerzan (Left Bank Books, Seattle, 1988), p. 91
  2. See Primitive Rebels by EJ Hobsbawm (Manchester University Press, 1974)

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