The Earth for Their Possession

Book Cover

I was in Hawaii to discuss ‘history from below’ together with that powerful practitioner of said history, scholarly abolitionist, writer, and colleague, Marcus Rediker.  How is ‘history from below’ to be distinguished from similar forms of history writing, such as people’s history, radical history, labor history, social history, not to mention African American history, or women’s history?  One distinction is that since ‘below’ implies ‘above,’ this practice of history always carries with it a notion of relationship as in, for example, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”  Our conversation on history from below only began on the last day of my visit, Saturday, 20 April, a week after arriving in Honolulu, a week to learn about ‘above’ and ‘below’ in Hawai’i and what lay hidden by them, the commons.

Rediker and I meantime participated in several events concerning the launch of my new book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning:  A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons & Closure, of Love & Terror, of Race & Class, and of Kate and Ned DespardThese events culminated with such challenging questions from his hard-working and brilliant students as: Why is the commons friendlier to women? How does the commons practically link the idealism of romanticism and radicalism?  Can an historian trained with “privileges” write history from below?

The launch began with a gathering at the University of Hawaii organized by Nandita Sharma.  Before the event Nandita, a proponent with her comrade and partner, Gaye Chan, of Eating in Public (also he name of their pamphlet).  They brought along a portable kitchen to feed us and teach us how to cook a delicious meal from local “weeds.”  They commoned for us and then passed along their recipe for Amaranth Goma-ae.  At the University a circle of fifty people came to hear about Red Round Globe Hot Burning whose title comes from William Blake. I recited,

They told me that night and day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up,
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.

The apparent confusion in these lines between the cosmos (the round globe) and the subject (my heart, my brain) no longer seems quite so deranged in our age of planetary warming, ocean acidification, and species extinction.  It explains why Blake’s moment of truth is upon us.  In response to the anthropocene we could do worse than Blake’s “The whole business of man is the arts and all things common.” Apart from the beach (and the “weeds”) nothing much is common any more in Honolulu.

Our fellow CounterPuncher, JoAnn Wypijewski, and former resident of Hawaii, had kindly advised me to look up Kaleo Patterson, who generously and in the spirit of aloha, became my guide along with his associate, Dr. Ha’aheo Guanson. They are both Hawaiians active in the indigenous movement and ordained ministers.  Dr. Guanson had taught for three decades at the University and Kaleo Patterson was a seasoned activist of many years, full of knowledge of land and sea. They drove me to the north coast of O’ahu where I longed to see the big waves break and how the surfers rode them. We passed former pineapple and sugar plantations now given over to buffalo grass. Kaleo explained that the economy no longer depended on sugar and pineapple but on the military and tourists. As we drove my introduction of Hawaiian history was only interrupted by laughter as we passed polo grounds and other signs of the private play-pens of the very wealthy.

Some activists had journeyed to the mainland in solidarity with the water-protectors of Standing Rock.  They are active in the reparations and reconciliation movement, seeking justice, seeking the location of hidden funds based on clouded land titles, organizing fund raising, nurturing the spirit of resistance. A few days earlier a riot had erupted in the prison on another island.  The prisoners were awaiting trial, not even found guilty.  Four men forced to inhabit cells designed for two; 24 hour lock-down; wages less than 25 cents an hour.  My guides are active on their behalf:  visiting, organizing petitions, fund-raisisng, and working with churches.    “You can only do so many massacres,” said these advocates of nonviolent resistance. Indeed, and I could only learn so much on a morning’s drive in this most beautiful place on earth, and the most militarized part of the planet.  We stopped for shaved ice.

I departed from Honolulu on Saturday, 20 April 2019.  Kaleo had told me when I arrived that it was Holy Week so according to the Christian calendar I was leaving the day after Good Friday, or the terrible crucifixion of Jesus, and the day before Easter, when the stone shutting up his mortal remains had been removed and the tomb emptied, evidence of resurrection.  That Saturday morning, it happened, that Marcus Rediker and I renewed our discussion of “history from below,” the form of history expressed in our earlier collaboration, The Many-Headed Hydra.  It was only towards the end of our conversation as we were making our way to the airport that it occurred to me that Saturday, or the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, had been celebrated in the Middle Ages as the day that Jesus went to hell.   How fitting, I thought, for ‘history from below.’

In the 14th century in various English towns the common people originated a dramatic form in the vernacular tongue, i.e., real English not Latin, to tell the Christian story.  They were called ‘mystery plays’ or ‘Corpus Christi plays’ as Corpus Christi had recently become a holiday. Around three dozen of these plays survive; they might be performed on cathedral steps or upon floats in procession through the town. These mystery plays were produced by various craft guilds. They were composed by the common people, for the common people, and to the commons.  They could not be performed within the cathedral or church.  They were part of civic life of the towns of Chester and York.

One of these plays, sponsored by two guilds, the saddlers and the glaziers, is called “The Harrowing of Hell” for this was the English translation for what had been written a thousand years earlier in the Book of Nicodemus called Decensus Christi ad Inferos. Actually, “inferos” means “those below.”  This coincidence raised questions:  was history from below returning to sacred history or had sacred history become secularized in history from below?

Theologically speaking, if Jesus had come to earth “to save mankind” what about those poor souls who lived and died before he got here, such as Isaiah and Moses or indeed, those first sinners, Adam and Eve?  They were consigned to the realm of the dead, the underworld, or hell.  This became the dramatic theme of this medieval mystery play where “harrowing” referred to the agricultural implement whose rows of iron teeth attached to a frame and dragged over a field, much as you might comb your hair, to aerate the soil. In the case of “The Harrowing of Hell” the modern editor believes it was performed in front of the castle gate.  Imagine the effect of watching Jesus banging at the entrance to hell,

Undo youre gatis, ye princis of pryde
The kyng of blisse comes in this tyde

Only it’s actually the gate of the local lord.  Centuries later they will say ‘peace to the cottages, war to the chateaux.’  Centuries earlier as David prophecies in “The Harrowing of Hell” talking to Satan,

I saide that he schuld breke
Youre barres and bandis by name
And so on youre werkis take wreke
Now schalle ye see the same.

David’s Psalm 107  actually says in modern translation, “He has shattered the doors of bronze; bars of iron he has snapped in two.”  It’s a small stretch to imagine Trump in the gate, a gate to mass incarceration.

Such like freedom thoughts inspired by Pacific islanders came to me when I came across in my airplane reading on the way home this quotation from Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, “Sports of the world, poor bummies, poor tarts, all they were good for was to draw flies I was told.  You could always treat one too good, it was said, but you could never treat one too bad. Yet I wouldn’t trade off the worst of the lot for the best of the other kind.  I think they were the real salt of the earth.”

This seemed exactly the Saturday subject, both the harrowing and the historiography. “Salt of the earth” is not only the title of that tremendous 1950s border film of a Spanish-speaking mining community’s struggle against the bosses but it is a phrase just after the Sermon on the Mount in the Book of Matthew (5:13), “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?  It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” This is Jesus, the carpenter’s son, organizing and instructing his disciples in a mountain retreat with his promise, “How blest are those of a gentle spirit; they shall have the earth for their possession.”

The gentle, the sorrowful, the hungry, the thirsty, the suffering – these are also Nelson Algren’s people, the bummies and the tarts.  “You are the light of the world,” said the great “organizer” before descending himself into hell on that fateful, forgotten Saturday. Or so, the peasants, the apprentices, would have been told as they stood on Corpus Christi day gaping at the this play. They remembered it when in that same century they rose in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 when the common folk riddled, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” It is a question answered by history from below.

The earth for their possession.  Jaimey Hamilton Faris, editor of Almanac for the Beyond (2019), a colorful, elegant compilation of artistic reactions, poetic and graphic, to the anthropocene, made me a gift of this handsome product, and writes,  “In Hawai’i, where I live and work, there are many such communities based on reviving ‘ike ‘aina, Hawaiian place-based knowledge and land practices.  Groups around the islands are reviving fishponds and watersheds, clearing invasive growth, building shelters, understanding the patterns of mist condensing on the mountains, replanting taro in fields that grew sugar for more than a century, and generally spending time together caring for the land, the water, and each other.”  The Hawaiian sovereignty movement in its many meanings is also bound up with a civilization that preceded the privatization and racist expropriation from the land.

The earth for their possession.  On King Street in downtown Honolulu is a palace, the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center.  In its central foyer flanked by grand marble stairways beneath a skylight there was arrayed the most amazing three-dimensional map I have ever seen. It was created by the Hawaiian artist, Bernice Akamine and it is called “Kalo.”  That is the name of a root crop, taro, which was the main food crop of the Hawaiian people before plantation agriculture was introduced with the USA empire of private property, Christianity, and guns.  The land was taken and the people proletarianized.  The gentle people of the five islands of Kaua’i, O’ahu, Moloka’i, Maui, and Hawai’i wrote petitions in 1897, thousands and thousands of names, against annexation by the USA, but all without avail.

The people, or maka’aiana, cultivated the taro in common, up and down the many valleys running between the mountain ranges that fall to the sea, like the knuckles of a closed fist.  Their names together with the location of their plots are figured on one side of the taro leafs while on the other side their names are inscribed as they appeared on the petitions.  The artist visited each island, and each of their valleys (the spaces between the knuckles so to speak).  One leaf = one valley, and there are hundreds.  The leaves are made of paper; they are tinted with soil that was given to the artist from each of the five islands; their stems are anchored in igneous rocks or basalt stones that were also gifted to the artist by the maka’aianaof each valley.  In English cartography such maps are technically called “terriers” as they depict the strips within the common open field, and were essential to the protocols of the Parliamentary Enclosure Acts, or robberies.

By the time the people were signing the petitions they had long lost their land: property was privatized in 1848 and the people swindled of their family holdings and community plots.  The Calvinists of the time having counseled that Jesus required private property!  Plantation and proletariat (export crop and labor immigration) were thus enabled.  All that was left was their “sovereignty” and their queen, until these too were taken. This was, to quote Marx again, “the ultima Thule of all statecraft.”  It was accomplished by money “the power of all powers.”

One of the questions asked during the conversation Marcus Rediker and I conducted in the former court room of the King Kamehameha V Judiciary History Center (built in 1874) referred to a place a block and a half away where the legal documents of private property conveyancing are preserved.  The questioner suggested that such a depository of private records had an effect on the public mind of sluggish torpor, almost (as I thought) of complete inanition, and she wondered what might be done about it. Historically, the answer has been plain: the collective procedure from the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 to the cahiers de doléance in the summer of 1789 in France to the action of the Zapatistas in San Cristobal in 1994 was the same: burn them!

Many of us left the court room with words that seemed to correspond to that last illuminating image:  The fire next time.

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: