A blog by Andres Boland, Metro State University
THE MANY HEADED HYDRA by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker is a book about the rise of the Atlantic triangle trade as seen from the bottom. The people at the bottom of the transatlantic economy, sailors, slaves, indentured servants, beggars, laborers and the landless, reacted to the upheaval caused by the rise of this economy. This book has many relevant lessons for today’s world and all of its upheavals. The experiences of people at the bottom, from peasants in Europe who relied upon the commons to Africans who were kidnapped into slavery and had entire ways of life uprooted to make room for the transatlantic economy, remind us of the experiences people today are having as entire ways of life are being uprooted in order to make room for the new economic order.
The title of the book refers to how the ruling political, economic, religious and military elites saw the lower classes as a threat that needs to be crushed and killed no matter the cost, and an ever present danger that required extreme violence, discipline and brutality to properly manage. The myth of Hercules slaying the Hydra was used by the Greeks and the Romans as a metaphor for their own growth and expansion, and the Hydra as the human and natural obstacles in the way of that expansion. So it followed that the ruling classes of the transatlantic economy saw the “obstacles” both natural and human, as a hydra that needed to be violently defeated and controlled.
The emphasis on the extreme and systemic violence done to the bottom in this new transatlantic economy is important because it was one of the foundations of the elite’s new found wealth and power. From slaves working on plantations, sailors on ships from hell, and laborers on land, to the men who served in the armed forces who enforced the new transatlantic order, all were subjected to extreme cruelty and terror in order to keep them in line. Mass executions were common ways of making sure that the bottom knew the consequences of defying their superiors. Mass terror and systemic cruelty were not unfortunate byproducts of the transatlantic economy but a part of its very fabric.
The other part of the foundation of the transatlantic economy was mass displacement of a variety of peoples from traditional ways of life. The first displacement was the destruction of the commons in Europe and especially England. The commons were lands that anyone could use to sustain themselves and their families. The process of enclosure was the process of privatizing this land for individuals only, mostly rich landowners and nobles. This was the first but not the last displacement, as indigenous peoples in the Americas were either forced off their land or targeted for genocide, and Africans were kidnapped for the slave trade. So mass displacement was another cornerstone of the transatlantic economy.
All this being said, those on the bottom found many ways to resist these developments. They united together to protect each other from the capricious cruelty of their “superiors” no matter their locations, be it on a ship or a plantation. The common themes that keep coming up in the book have to do with solidarity (as in means of practical support for one’s group and each other), resilience to the crushing of people’s freedom, and most importantly of all, never giving up. What struck me most about the bottom in this book was that no matter how many times their plots were foiled or their revolts were put down, they still kept on fighting for a better future and a better world. The ruling class got one thing right about the bottom, no matter how many heads they cut off, two more took its place.
The book has gotten mostly positive reviews. Sukhdev Sandhu of THE GUARDIAN said that “its passion and commitment encourage the reader to think associatively, to make progressive connections.” In THE BOSTON REVIEW, Robin Blackburn says that the book’s authors Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker “are so steeped in their subject matter that they spot patterns and links that others would not notice.” In both cases, the reviews are positive and have good things to say about the book. Both co-authors have written many other books. Peter Linebaugh’s include STOP THIEF! THE COMMONS, ENCLOSURES, AND RESISTANCE (Spectre, 2014) and THE INCOMPLETE, TRUE, AUTHENTIC, ANMD WONDERFUL HISTORY OF MAY DAY (Spectre, 2016), while Marcus Rediker’s publications include VILLAINS OF ALL NATIONS: ATLANTIC PIRATES IN THE GOLDEN AGE (Beacon, 2005) and THE SLAVE SHIP: A HUMAN HISTORY (Penguin, 2008)
THE MANY HEADED HYDRA tells many stories of those at the bottom. But the East Side Freedom Library has books and programs which tell even more such stories.. For example, the many broad strokes like how the slaves resisted slavery or how the commons were stolen in many other books can be found at the East Side Freedom Library. The Hydra has many heads, come learn about yours at the East Side Freedom Library.