The Significance of The Common Wind

The Cover of the Book The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution by Julius S. Scott

I intend to speak of both the title of Julius Scott’s book, The Common Wind, and the common wind itself.

It’s a great title. Scott gets it from William Wordsworth’s sonnet of 1802 to Toussaint L’Ouverture. Scott quotes the seven lines of its second half.

Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live and take comfort. Thou has left behind
Powers that will work for thee: air, earth, and skies
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

Lines which mix subject and object or Man and Nature.  Julius Scott asks us to interpret the common wind as the exultation, agony, love, and unconquerable mind of the masterless people of the Caribbean in the freedom struggle.

You and I can’t forget the common wind either for it is carried by a revolutionary subject whose object has not yet been fully attained.

These metaphors lose their power as they enter language.  Some ideas are “in the air,” that is, they are anonymous. People “get wind” of a hot press and scramble off their ships and “run like the wind” to escape it. Language is also an historical artifact and tracing a metaphor to its literal source may reveal something of the past.  In this case revealing central themes for those who practice history from below, the themes of anonymity and collectivity. Wordsworth provides an idealist meaning where earth, sky, and sea are receptacles of human projections which then signify back to human social life natural attributes which otherwise would not be observed. Wind is the medium of sound, and therefore of oral history, therefore of song and music, therefore of story.

Ernest Dowson a poet of the English decadence school whose poem of 1894, called “I am not what I was,” was the origin of another title[1]

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind…
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion

It’s the dead opposite of our common wind.  Dowson’s wind of forgetting faces Wordsworth’s wind of remembering.  So there is poetic justice that under Margaret Mitchel’s high-class hands “gone with the wind” becomes the title of a 1936 novel of nostalgia for the death camps of the slave regime which the actual common wind of Afro-America put an end to.

With balance and authority Scott’s prose is clear, persuasive, and (owing to understatement in the face of great crimes) even calming.  His use of archival resources is efficient.  The arrangement is balanced and re-assuring.[2]

Scott’s subject is expressed in the sub-title, “Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution.”  The Afro-American communicators were “the masterless Caribbean,” a phrase which combines an economic political relation with a geographical one.  The masterlessness –  transients, vagabonds, wharfingers, deserters, runaways, fugitives, higglers, renegades, pirates, bandits, buccaneers, freebooters, “the colorful assortment of saucy and insubordinate characters,” those with “no known means of subsistence,” and in as lackadaisical expression of revolutionary consciousness as I’ve ever heard, “disenchanted people casting about for new options.” The figure of the masterless is closely associated to its antonym, that is, the mastered, especially the sailor and the slave. They are skilled, at navigation, at weather, at boat building, in languages.  Women in the market referred to one another as “sailors.”  They studied the horizon for what the future might bring – squall, hurricane, storm, breeze, trades, doldrums, easterlies.

Bob Dylan’s song “Caribbean Wind” (1980), the most re-written of his songs, hits the nail on the head

And them Caribbean winds still blow from Nassau to Mexico
Fanning the flames in the furnace of desire
And them distant ships of liberty on them iron waves so bold and free,
Bringing everything that’s near to me nearer to the fire.

Alexander Lindsay, or Lord Balcarres, governor of Jamaica, wrote in July 1800, “Every kind of Vice that can be found in Commercial Towns is pre-eminent in Kingston ….  Turbulent people of all Nations engaged in illicit trade; a most abandoned class of Negroes, up to every scene of mischief, and a general leveling spirit throughout, is the character of the lower orders in Kingston.”

Scott’s geographical coordinates are those of the masterless themselves.  His sources in national archives depending as they do upon national boundaries are read against the grain.  Like his subject he must be familiar with English, French, and Spanish languages. “America” is always plural, the “Americas.”  Venezuela, Curaçao, Saint-Domingue were connected by a close web of communication.  Ships fly under a variety of flags.  His is not a geography of force; his coordinates are ethnic and they describe currents of rebellion and revolution.  The islands are “stepping stones.” Shallops, droggers, canoes, wherries, and harbor boats are the riverine and coastal craft, that mediate between land and sea.  Towards the end Scott permits himself the phrase “the black presence on the sea.” It is the sea, always the sea, the choppy, turquoise, Winslow Homer, Caribbean Sea upon which ply vessels with sails swelling by the common wind.

The date of the poem is significant being composed a year prior to the final victories assuring Haitian independence.  Huge changes were taking place that year.  More persons were violently embarked on British ships for the Middle Passage to slavery than ever before in human history.

A second interpretation of ‘the common wind’ goes back to Wordsworth who earlier that year wrote a long poem called “Michael” which tells the story of loss – the splitting, alienation, and heart-ache resulting from the chicanery and skullduggery of sale.  A shepherd in the uplands paid close attention to the wind as a harbinger of bad weather to protect his sheep from harm or getting lost.  The poem tells the story of expropriation.

… these fields, these hills
Which were his living Being even more
Than his own Blood.

Fields where with cheerful spirits he had breath’d
The common air ….

When we rather coolly refer to “real estate” or the “ownership of the means of production” we are actually talking about, at least philosophically, is the loss of unity between subjectivity and objectivity. The common air amid these hills was an aspect of the common land which were systematically stolen by a parcel of Parliamentary rogues.  When Wordsworth thought of the common air or the common wind it was in association with this vast loss affecting not only England but the USA whose landmass was surveyed then divided into squares, after precisely targeted settler violence terrorized the indigenous inhabitants, to be sold also in the 1790s. Once we know this then the first half of Wordsworth’s sonnet makes sense.

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience! Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow;

Next to gleaning the most important common right was the possession of “a cow’s grass” (I use an Irish expression), because if she enjoyed both common rights – the gleaned grain and the cow’s herbage – a commoner might have bread, milk, cheese and once in a while roast beef.  “Whether the rural Milk-maid by her cow sing in thy hearing.”

In that year of 1802 more Acts of Parliament enclosing common lands were passed than ever before in human history.  Call it slicing up the baloney, or (with Marx) the metabolic rift, or (with E.P. Thompson) class robbery.

The cotton plantation supplanted the sugar plantation as means of exploitation.  Therefore the location of exploitation removed from the Caribbean to what was becoming the American South where “the pushing system” to intensify labor was accomplished by the principle tool of productivity, the whip.  That cotton besides undercutting Turkish, Egyptian, and Indian cotton on global market, became the principle input to those English factories where people such as “Michael” went to be consumed.

Wind is one of the planetary forces.  Its force and direction are caused by temperature differentials between the equator and the poles and by the rotation of the earth (Coriolis effect), and finally by the friction of surface topography.  This brings me to a third interpretation of “the common wind” which I want to put forward before returning to Scott’s masterless Caribbean.  It has to do with a force which not even Alexander Humboldt identified in these years, though he came close.

Humboldt left Europe in 1798 to begin five years of bio-piracy, “hiking” up and down the Andes (sometimes piggy-back on Indians), and began to develop the elements of ecology.  One of his contributions to that science was the concept of isotherms, or lines on a map connecting points having the same temperature.  Humboldt was studying heat in this thermodynamic age. Its source was coal used for warmth in city housing and the energy for the steam engine.  One of the consequences of this change was the increase of the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, where it still resides. Thus the common wind of the era of the coal-fired steam-engine commenced planetary warming.  In treating the sky as a sewer the ruling social classes of the U.S.A. and the U.K. began the process which has elevated some of the lithosphere into the stratosphere. The historical era of the Haitian revolution was also the geological era of the anthropocene.[3]

These then in very rough outline are the additional meanings of “the common wind.”  One meaning refers to enclosure with its expropriations from land.  The other meaning refers to ecology with its perturbations of the whole earth system.

Two other historical complexes changing the social relations of human production, namely the factory of machines and field of enclosures, belong to the era of the Haitian revolution.  One augmented the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; the other produced landlessness and rootlessness.[4]  These complexes or systems are related to one another.   As history is the story of freedom, we give the Haitian revolution priority among these geographical and geological systems. The problems caused by expropriation and by the anthropocene must find their solution in that first complex or system.

We can refer to ‘the lower orders’ or to ‘the making of the working-class’ or to ‘the many-headed Hydra’ or to ‘the labor market’ or to pan-Africanism or to the ‘multitude.’  All these designations denote a human force which is anonymous, collective, and heterogeneous.[5]

I now want us to return to cultural and revolutionary forces of the Caribbean and see them in relation to the economic forces of accumulation and the geological forces of the anthropocene.  How are they inter-related?  Does the first supply us with a solution to the second and third? Can the common wind carry a subject capable of large-scale intervention in the human-planetary system led by Euro-American capital, molded by its wars, and structured by its political forms? Can the common wind reclaim the commons?  Can the common wind cool us down?

To conclude. “The Common Wind” ends by quoting William Wells Brown’s judgment that the revolution in Saint-Domingue was the pivotal event in the history of Afro-Americans.   Toussaint and the revolution occupy a central place in the cultural memory of blacks in North America.  The wind continues to blow.

The Communist Manifestowas written in 1848.  “All that is solid melts into air,” said Karl Marx. A book of “airs” or a collection of songs was also published that year, William Wells Brown’s The Anti-Slavery Harp.  It included the “Song of the Coffle Gang” sung by what Baptist calls “the human centipede,” that is, the chain gang which parted family and friends for the far off South.[6]  Song carried on the wind.

See these poor souls from Africa,
Transported to America:
We are stolen, and sold to Georgia, will you go along with me?
We are stolen and sold to Georgia, go sound the jubilee.

Ten years later Martin Delaney began to publish Blake; Or, the Huts of America (1859), perhaps the first novel of an Afro-American. It is the story of family destruction and re-unification by means of rumor, whisper, and song.  The velocity of rumor is determined by the intensity of expectation; trust is given with song recognition.

See wives and husbands torn apart,
Their children’s screams, they grieve my heart.
They are torn away to Georgia!
Come and go along with me –
They are torn away to Georgia!
Go sound the Jubilee!

Scott refers to the practice of “shantying” as the English spell the French chanter which were neither folk nor work songs.  They are the songs of the collective or the proletariat.  Black musicians were integral to the imperial armies by the 1780s, drummers especially, strings, brass, clarinet among other wind instruments, and who can forget Equiano on the fiddle?  Or, the conch itself.

The medium of sound is air; the common wind announces the jubilee. Bible scholars know at least six other attributes to jubilee –  it is every fifty years, it restitutes land ownership, it forgives debts, it emancipates slaves, it leaves the earth fallow, and it requires zerowork.  In other words as slave wisdom summed up, “God made de world and de white folk made work.”


[1]  Actually the poem is called in Latin Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonæ sub Regno Cynaræ.

[2] Speaking as a craftsman myself, Julius Scott’s Common Wind has been part of my breath from chapter ten of The London Hanged, to the foundation of every chapter of The Many-Headed Hydra, and to Red Round Globe Hot Burning about an attempt at revolutionary insurrection in London in 1802.

[3] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso, 2015)

[4] From 280 ppm in 1750 to 284 ppm in 1809 and over 400 ppm in 2013.

[5] The federal accomplishment of the U.S.A. was summed up in the Latin tag e pluribus unum (out of many one) but the historical force implied by this Atlantic history from below has the opposite motto, ex uno plures (from one many).

[6] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014)

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: