Stroud Radical Reading Group: The Many-Headed Hydra

By Jamie O’Dell and James Beecher 

In the second part of their series of discussions on the Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism, September’s meeting of the Stroud Radical Reading Group was centred upon Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s book ‘The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic’, first published in 2000.

On Tuesday, October 20th, in a parliamentary debate about Black History Month, Conservative MP Gareth Bacon complained: “Recently, attempts have been made to sully the reputations of towering figures in British history because the views of their time do not necessarily conform to today’s values.” This is a favourite response of those who like to pretend both that proper attention to the reality rather than the myths of British imperialism are an attempt to ‘rewrite history’ and that the UK has largely overcome racism.

The Many Headed Hydra is a work of ‘history from below’ which challenges such an approach – exploring both the foundations of our modern economy and societies, but also giving voice to those who challenged dispossession, exploitation and racism – whether in publications or in rebellions. It’s a powerful reminder that there was not a time where racist views and practices were tolerated by those on the receiving end. It is hard to do justice to the long and detailed book in a short review. By way of introduction, it is – in the author’s words – “A story about the origins of capitalism and colonisation, about world trade and the building of empires. It is also, necessarily, a story about the uprooting and movement of peoples… about exploitation and resistance to exploitation… a story about cooperation among different types of people for contrasting purposes of profit and survival. And it is a story about alternative ways of living, and about the official use of violence and terror to destroy them.” The ‘Many-headed Hydra’ of the title is a reference to the practice of the classically-educated architects of the trade routes and colonies of the Atlantic economy imaging themselves in the image of Hercules. Whose twelve labours represented, for them, the struggle for power, order and economic development. The hydra in their analogy was the ‘antithetical symbol of disorder and resistance’, and represented a powerful threat to the building of state, empire, and capitalism. 

The difficulty Hercules faced in killing the Hydra, who would grow two new heads for every one he removed, was used to describe the difficulties colonisers and early capitalists faced in establishing global systems of labour. This was an analogy applied by actors like Dutch governors unable to subjugate Maroon communities of former slaves in Suriname, to English industrialists struggling to deal with strikes by spinners in Lancashire.

The discussion was mainly focused upon one particular raising of a Hydra’s head in a chapter about the March 1741 ‘New York Conspiracy’, when Fort George, then the prime military fortification in British America, was set on fire by “the outcasts of the nations of the Earth”, who formed a ‘motley’ crew of soldiers, sailors, Irish, and slaves from the Caribbean and Africa. The chapter places the events of 1741 in context of a cycle of ‘multiracial conspiracies’ and rebellions of the 1730s and 1740s, and notes how repression of these led to the promotion of “a white identity” in order to “produce new discipline and a different solidarity”. 

The discussion started by focusing upon the burning of Fort William, the act of resistance that struck the ‘heart of royal authority’ in New York, itself and how the flow of ‘Atlantic experiences’ influenced and shaped this. This notion of ‘Atlantic experiences’ was particularly interesting in how it spoke of the multi-racial transfer of knowledge around the Atlantic, with the experiences that led to the fires being drawn from “the military regiment, the plantation, the waterfront gang, the religious conventicle, and the ethnic tribe or clan to make something new, unprecedented, and powerful”. 

The case of the ‘New York Conspiracy’ also bears direct and crucial relevance for how we see and consider Whiteness. The authorities in New York “reacted to the racial fluidity within the conspiracy with terror and mercy, the combination of which was meant to produce new discipline and a different solidarity”. In seeking to break apart the ‘dangerous insurrectionary connections between slaves of African descent’ they demonised “the most flagitious, degenerated, and abandoned, and scum and dregs of the white population”, yet offered mercy to several white conspirators in an effort to break apart these bonds of inter-racial class solidarity. 

They promoted a white identity to make it more difficult for workers along the waterfront to find these bonds and unify while they restructured their slave trade to import enslaved people directly from Africa, rather than buying within the Carribbean, to disrupt to the flow of insurrectionary knowledge (some of those who had joined the rebellion in New York had experience of previous uprisings).

This conscious use of a ‘white’ identity to unify various ethnicities that we would now consider ‘white’, along New York’s waterfront links back to the group’s previous discussion of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s video on the geographies and histories of racial capitalism. Here Gilmore identified how racism “started racial without what people imagine race to mean – which is Black people”. Thus the meaning and use of ‘race’ was adapted constantly to meet the demands of the capitalists benefiting from the exploitation racism enabled. 

In Gilmore and Linebaugh and Rediker’s accounts, therefore, racism was something that was consciously constructed to create, sustain, and justify exploitation based upon racial division. Elsewhere in the book, as discussed at the session, the authors cover significant pieces of legislation that marked the construction of Racial Capitalism.

Conspiracies between African slaves and Irish servants in the later half of the 1600s were dealt with by the rulers of Barbados through the codification of the slave and servant code of 1661. This code legally and socially differentiated slave from servant by offering the ‘White’ servant new protections against violence and exploitation and thus separating their interests along racial lines. 

“The effort to recompose the class by giving servants and slaves different material positions within the plantation system continued as platers transformed the remaining servants into a labour elite, as artisans, overseers, and members of the militia, who, bearing arms, would be used to put down slave revolts”.

This came simultaneously with the restoration of the monarchy in England, with a 1659 parliamentary debate marking a point when “a convergence of ideas about slavery, race, and empire among Parliamentarians and royalists, former antagonists in the English Revolution and civil wars, would ease the way for the restoration of the monarchy.” Thus ‘the English doctrine of white supremacy’ developed in the context of counterrevolution and the advance of the slave trade. 

‘Once the abolitionism of the English Revolution was defeated, sugar production increased threefold in Barbados’ 

These distinctions were codified further in similar legislation in Virginia in 1682, which distinguished between Africans who could be enslaved for life, indigenous inhabitants of America who could be enslaved for 12 years, and Europeans who were indentured as servants for 4-5 years (this had the result that “Virginia’s big planters began to substitute African slaves for European indentured servants”). Later, in 1705, an “Act Concerning Servants and Slaves… guaranteed the rights of servants and defined slaves as a form of property.” 

Therefore, the book provides a history behind the notion of a ‘white working class’ that is somehow distinct from, and in some form of competition with, other parts of the working class – whether immigrants or communities of colour. For instance, the book tells the story of Thomas Rainborough, “the most radical of the leading officers in the New Model Army” who “spoke out against… Africans imprisoned for sale in the Americas.”

Indeed the book directly links the fate of the English working class directly with those enslaved. For instance, struggles for access to the ‘once vast’ commons lands in England was connected with the struggle against slavery, with the fork in the road at the Putney debates pointing to ‘either a future with the commons and without slavery, or to one with slavery and without the commons’. Commoners had access to common pasture, turf, gravel, wood, river resources, all of which was threatened by the enclosure of these lands as private property, another key engine of capitalist development and something which is still keenly relevant today still. The popular sentiment surrounding these enclosures best summarised by this 17th century protest song: 

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine
The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back

Karl Marx’s famous rallying cry, inscribed upon his grave, ‘workers of the world, unite’ thus becomes a poignant statement when considering how elites the world over have used the tactics of division to maintain exploitation. This being as relevant today as it ever was.

Stroud Radical Reading Group’s series of discussions exploring Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism continues on October 28th we will discuss “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution” by C.L.R. James. The discussion will take place on a Zoom video call – please register (free) to access the details and be sent a reminder on the day.

In Black Jacobins, CLR James provides the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803 and the story of the French colony of San Domingo. It is also the story of Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the black people of San Domingo in a successful struggle against successive invasions by overwhelming French, Spanish, and English forces – helping to form the first independent nation in the Caribbean, and inspiring anti-colonial movements around the world.

The full text of The Black Jacobins is available online for free in different formats. We encourage people to read the whole book, and as much as possible if not.

For those who know they will only have time for a section, our introducer Jeremy Green recommends Chapter 2 – The Owners.

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