Book Review

Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Reviewed by Mac Test | March 18, 2004

For anybody interested in the history of colonial America from the margins, this is your book. Linebaugh and Rediker marshal an impressive range of original research to show how important the motley crews of sailors and slaves, thieves and commoners of the 16th and 17th centuries were in the formation of America. Sailors were the prime movers in the cycle of rebellion against Great Britain between 1765 and 1776. Sailor riots in the 1740’s, for instance, led to the publication of the Independent Advertiser, which pronounced that “all Men are by Nature on a Level; born with an equal Share of Freedom” (217). These words would later be echoed in the Declaration of Independence.

The Many-Headed Hydra opens with an examination of the wreck of the Sea-Venture, a vessel carrying indentured servants (slaves) to work on the newly established Virginian plantations. The Virginia Company and its propagandists never tired of repeating how they “would provide a necessary public service by removing the ‘swarmes of idle persons’ in England and set them to work in Virginia, as Richard Hakluyt, the main propagandist for English colonization, had been suggesting for twenty years” (16). These idle persons were, of course, the result of the expropriation of vast tracts of common lands in England. The architects of the Atlantic economy found the many-headed Hydra the perfect representation of the disorderly groups of dispossessed commoners, religious radicals, felons, pirates, soldiers, sailors, and African slaves. John Donne wrote in a sermon of 1622 that the Virginia Company “shall sweep your streets, and wash your dores, from idle persons, and imploy them and force idle persons to work.” Linebaugh and Rediker emphasize how the promoters of the colonies wanted “America to function as a prison, and for many it did” (59). This book brings to light the struggles of an underrepresented people and their history.

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