Outlaws of the Atlantic Sailors, pirates, and motley crews in the Age of Sail

Marcus Rediker

Book - 2014

Rediker turns maritime history upside down, exploring the dramatic world of maritime adventure not from the perspective of admirals, merchants, and nation-states but from the viewpoint of commoners: sailors, slaves, indentured servants, pirates, and other outlaws from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth century. He reveals how the "motley" (i.e. multiethnic) crews were a driving force behind the American Revolution; that pirates, enslaved Africans, and other outlaws worked together to subvert capitalism; and that, in the era of the tall ship, outlaws challenged authority from below deck.

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Boston, Massachusetts : Beacon Press [2014]
Main Author
Marcus Rediker (-)
Physical Description
xii, 241 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface
  • Prologue
  • 1. The Sailor's Yarn
  • 2. Edward Barlow, "Poor Seaman"
  • 3. Henry Pitman, "Fugitive Traitor"
  • 4. Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates
  • 5. A Motley Crew in the American Revolution
  • 6. African Rebels: From Captives to Shipmates
  • 7. "Black Pirates": The Amislad Rebellion, 1839
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

With a keen eye for interesting characters, historian Rediker (The Amistad Rebellion) delivers a brisk narrative about the "ordinary" men who traversed the Atlantic interlocking networks of empire and early capitalism. Edward Barlow, who went to sea in the mid-1600s at age 13, represents the Englishmen who chose to earn a living aboard ship. Henry Pitman, on the other hand, was forced into his seafaring adventures, having been sentenced to servitude in Barbados in 1685 as punishment for a political crime. He escaped by boat, encountering pirates and indigenous Americans on his journey home. But pirates, disruptive sailors, and unwilling passengers are the real stars. During the early 1700s, pirates threatened the stability of Britain's empire, seizing property and damaging international trade. In the late 18th-century, sailors played a major role in the American Revolution, particularly in raising awareness of the horrors of Royal Navy press gangs. Meanwhile, African slaves regarded ships as locations of resistance, fomenting uprisings as they tried to destroy the lucrative slave trade (the dramatic 1839 Amistad case actually hinged less on slavery than on legal definitions of piracy). As Rediker's nifty book demonstrates, on the high seas there was a fine line between hero and criminal. Illus. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Rediker (Atlantic History/Univ. of Pittsburgh;The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, 2012, etc.) explores maritime history from the bottom up, telling the stories of the sailors, slaves, pirates and motley crews [who] shaped a history we have long regarded as white, elite, national, and landed.The author provides a top-notch examination of how indentured servants, privateers, pirates and slaves affected and even directed human history in the age of sail. He doesnt dwell on famous naval and exploratory voyages; he avoids the usual terracentrism and relies on the seas unreal space and the sailors yarns that spread news and views. The voyage narrative was a popular genre of 18th-century literature, and it was those tales that influenced writers like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift. The most interesting thread that weaves through this book and creates the basis for Atlantic history is the effect of the motley crews. These multiethnic groups, who patrolled the Atlantic as former slaves, privateers and pirates, had their own self-organization, standards of conduct and even pirate retirement communities. They were what Rediker calls social bandits, men who embodied an enduring phenomenon: peasants protests against oppression, poverty and, most importantly, a cry for vengeance. These men fed the seaport crowds with the notion that moral conscience stood above state laws and legitimized their resistance. These crews also helped in the run-up to the American Revolution, including the Boston Massacre.The sailors spread the stories of revolt aboard merchant and slave ships through the Atlantic basin, from Boston to Africa to Saint Domingue to France, fomenting unrest and uprisings.An outstanding view of the seaman as a preeminent worker of the world, a cosmopolitan in the truest sense, who shaped the history of our planet in profound and lasting ways. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

From the Prologue The European deep-sea sailing ship--and the seamen who made it go--transformed the world. On the Santa Maria, on which Columbus crossed the Atlantic, on the Victoria, on which Magellan circled the globe, and on the ever-growing fleets of merchant and naval vessels that linked the seven seas, their continents, and their peoples, the motley crews who worked aboard the most sophisticated machines of their day made history. By moving commodities such as silver, spices, and sugar over long distances they built the world market and the international economy. By carrying traders, settlers, and empire builders to Africa, Asia, and the Americas, they changed the global political order. Deep-sea sailors thus made possible a profound transformation: the rise of colonialism, capitalism, and our own vexed modernity. Yet sailors have never gotten their due in the history books. Bertolt Brecht asked, "Who built the seven gates of Thebes?" He answered, "The books are filled with the names of kings," but then he wondered, "Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?" Explorers like Columbus and Magellan, and admirals like Horatio Nelson, have long dominated our view of the history of the sea, but that at last has begun to change. Histories of "great men" and national glory by sea have, over the past generation, been challenged by chronicles of common sailors and their many struggles. Maritime history has grown to include indentured servants and enslaved Africans, whose transatlantic lives were mediated by a gruesome yet formative Middle Passage across the sea. The rise of social history since the 1970s has of course transformed our view of many historical subjects, but few have witnessed as dramatic a reorientation as maritime history. Within the more recent rise of transnational and world history the sailor has begun to move from the margins--his customary position in national histories--to a more central position as one whose labors not only connected, but made possible, a new world. It is increasingly obvious that crucial historical processes unfolded at sea and that seafaring people were history makers of the first importance. This collection of my work over the past thirty years focuses on both transformations, bringing together the Atlantic and global histories of seafaring and slavery, the rise of capitalism and the many challenges to it from below--often literally, from below decks. In writing maritime history from below, I have encountered not only the elitism of the old maritime history but an obstacle more subtle and less understood: the uninspected assumption that only the landed spaces on the earth's surface are real. Perhaps it is not quite right to call this assumption a matter of thought; it is more an instinct, a mental reflex, and perhaps all the more powerful and pervasive for being unconsidered. One suspects that it is a matter of mentalité, a deep structure of Western thought that has an ancient history. Yet it must also be noted that this way of looking at the world--I call it terracentric--was surely strengthened by the rise of the modern nation-state in the late eighteenth century, after which power and sovereignty would be linked to specific ethnic, civic, and national definitions of "the people" and their land, their soil. At the same time the Romantic generation simultaneously "evacuated" the sea of real ships and sailors--"dirty bilge water and people at work," writes literary scholar Margaret Cohen--substituting a sea wild and sublime, populated with imaginary figures, fit for aesthetic contemplation. The other side of terracentrism is the unspoken proposition that the seas of the world are unreal spaces, voids between the real places, which are landed and national. This logic--the bias of landed society--is evident in the work of thinkers as radically different as novelist Joseph Conrad and philosopher Michel Foucault. Conrad, who spent considerable time at sea, called the oceangoing ship "a fragment detached from the earth." The statement suggests that the ship is disconnected not only from the land, but somehow from the planet, existing in a realm apart. Foucault called the ship "a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself, and at the same given over to the infinity of the sea." The ocean, in this formulation, is not only a place apart, it is "no place"--the original meaning of utopia. In both cases there is a refusal to consider the ocean as a real, material place of human work and habitation, a place where identities have been formed, where history has been made. The West Indian poet Derek Walcott exposed and attacked Western terracentric bias in his poem "The Sea Is History," which reflects on the experience of the peoples of the African diaspora: Where are your monuments, your battles, your martyrs? Where is your tribal memory? Sirs, in that gray vault. The Sea. The sea has locked them up. The sea is History. Walcott challenges us to overcome a deeply inculcated, often unconscious terracentrism, which would have us believe that the oceans are empty places, without history. It is our job to unlock the gray vault and make it give up its deep, hidden secrets. This book tries to unlock these secrets by examining the Atlantic Ocean as a historical space within which the formation of empires and rise of capitalism depended on a specific maritime technology: the Northern European deep-sea sailing ship. During the "age of sail," roughly 1500 to 1850, this was the world's most sophisticated and important machine. The novelist Barry Unsworth called it an "engine of wood and canvas and hemp." This global instrument of European power made possible extraordinary things--plunder, conquest, and finally a political and economic dominance that haslasted to this day. Excerpted from Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.