Hydrarchy, Maritime Resistance, and the Production of Race: An Interview with Marcus Rediker

Detail from an engraving depicting the rebellion on the Amistad, 1840.

I would like to start by asking you about a main concept of your work, which is the concept of “hydrarchy.” As a matter of fact, I think this can be useful to understand the history of capitalism but also its processes of today, as water seems to be once again the space in which the main capitalistic transformations are acting. In saying this, I am thinking about the Mediterranean Sea, but of course not only. This concept of the dominion of/on the sea is also being re-used in different fields and context of analysis and research. Can you explain us this concept of hydrarchy and how it crosses your work?

This concept of hydrarchy emerged from the book Peter Linebaugh and I wrote called The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press 2000). Edward Braithwate wrote in 1631 that sailors lived in a “hydrarchy,” the social order of life at sea. Hydrarchy literally meant government on the water. We re-deployed an archaic term and made it central to our book. It has remained important to all of the work I have done ever since. Like many other concepts, hydrarchy needs to be understood from two perspectives: from above and from belove.

If we look at it from above, hydrarchy refers to the imperial organization and control of maritime space during the construction of a global system of capitalism, beginning in the late 16th century and continuing on to the present. The hydrarchy of naval power polices and manages the sea, for the accumulation of capital.

Hydrarchy from below refers to how seafaring people organize themselves and their lives. Historically this self-organization includes a maritime tradition of resistance that is radical, democratic, and egalitarian. Hydrarchy from below is based on the work seafarers do, how they cooperate in a dangerous environment, and how they learn that solidarity is necessary for survival. The egalitarian dimension of hydrarchy also flows from the mobility of the worker, which limits the ability of property to mediate human relationships. A rough equality of condition is built into the concept of hydrarchy, in contrast to landed society where from antiquity forward social life was organized around the transmission of property, usually through patriarchal institutions. A different, more inclusive logic governs social life at sea: “we are all in this boat together.” Hydrarchy as a new concept became a way to understand social struggles at sea – to explore the efforts to create discipline and control from above, and the efforts to resist and create new social formations from below. Peter and I studied hydrarchy in the early modern era but its application as a concept is broader. Scholars, artists, and activists working on all periods of his- tory have taken up the term. I am happy to see that it is proving to be useful.

It seems that the Hydrarchy is strictly connected to the rising of capitalism. In her last book Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism (PM Press 2021), Silvia Federici talks about the concept of enclosure as a process that never ended. What do you think about this and in which ways the process of enclosure is linked to the relationship between capitalism and the sea?

Silvia’s work on this subject is of course very important and I agree that the process of enclosure is central to the rise of capitalism. But the sea has been nearly impossible to enclose. Imperialists debated this matter in the 17th century, Spain and Portugal insisting on mare clausum, the sea enclosed for their own uses, as the Dutch and the English argued for mare liberum, the sea as a common available for all to use freely. Ruling classes on both sides of the debate want- ed to use the seas to establish the power of capital and empire, but no one could actually project enough naval power to create full enclosure. The oceans of the world became a site of struggle,

between nations and classes. To Silvia’s critique that Marx neglected race and gender in his analysis of the rise of capitalism I would add that he never thought about the sea as a real, material place of struggle. This is a common bias in our thought, something I have called «terracentrism», the often unconscious belief that only the landed surfaces of the earth are real, and that the sea is an abstract, unreal, ahistorical void. We need to think about the sea as a real place – of work, accumulation, conflict, and history-making. We need to recover and honor the struggle for the oceanic commons.

In your book The Slave Ship: a Human history (Viking-Penguin 2007) you analyze the ship as a sort of engine of this Hydrarchy and you speak about it as a floating factory. In which sense is the ship a factory and what does this factory crossing the sea produce?

Most people do not know that the word “factory” has an African origin. European slave traders grounded ships along the coast of West Africa and used them as places of business for buying human bodies. The root-word of factory is «factor», or merchant, who organizes production and trade. So that is one way in which a ship was literally a factory. The slave ship was also a machine, a floating factory that produced specific things, and we have to look at it in this way in order to understand how it was a site of history-making. I argued in The Slave Ship: A Human History that the ship/factory produced two things.

First, by transporting human bodies from one place to another, from the coast of West Africa to the plantation system of the New World, it produced labor power that would be redeployed in a new setting for the accumulation of capital. The accumulation of labor power happened on the ship, valorized by the workers who were on board.

The second thing the ship produced was categories of race. Let me give two examples. The ship’s crew in the 18th century – then and still today – was always multi-ethnic. A ship might begin its voyage from Liverpool with 40 sailors on board – English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, French, Greek, African, African American. But when they arrived on the coast of West Africa and began trading for enslaved people, the people on that ship would be called the “white people,” not because of the color of their skin, but because of their control of the technology, the ship, that made the trade possible. Sailors went from multi-ethnic to “white.” They actually lost some of their whiteness on the Atlantic voyage and I can say more about that if you like. Now let’s look at it from the African Side. The people who were loaded onto the ships were also multi-ethnic – Fante, Igbo, Mende, and dozens of other ethnicities. But once transported across the Atlantic, they disembarked the ship as members of a single «negro race». What we see is that race formation was going on board of the ship – and of course it continued in the port cities and on plantations, but the ship marked the original racial transformation.

I developed the idea of the ship as a floating factory in the first book I wrote, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Cambridge University Press 1987), about merchant ships and sailors in the 18th century. The idea was that workers from many different backgrounds came together on the ship, as waged laborers, to toil cooperatively. The ship captain, armed with extreme and violent authority, oversaw and often forced their cooperation within a complex division of labor. The ship was in all of these ways a precursor of the modern factory.

Labor historians had rarely seen the ship as a factory, nor the sailor as a kind of industrial worker, because work at sea did not produce commodities. But thinking of production as only involving commodities is a mistake: production involves the creation of value through time and space. Sailors created part of the value of the commodity called “slave.” When enslaved workers produced the original value of sugar, tobacco, rice, or cotton on the plantation, sailors created additional value by moving those commodities through space to international markets. A related point is that women’s domestic labor also produces value, but does not necessarily produce commodities, so reproductive labor fits in the same category. Thinking about the ship as a factory help us to think about the nature of both the factory and the working class.

You said before they lose their whiteness during the crossing. What do you mean by that?

Multi-ethnic sailors became “white” as they loaded enslaved people aboard the vessels. But as they sailed across the Atlantic to Virginia, Jamaica, or Brazil, sailors slowly lost their value to the captain, who needed forty sailors during the «middle passage» but needed only sixteen or so to take the vessel back to Europe. As the vessel approached its port of delivery the captain would bully the seamen in the hope that some of them would desert the ship, allowing him to avoid paying their wages. Sailors lost their whiteness as they became surplus labor of lower value to capital. Poor, abused, often sick, and abandoned, these European sailors were some- times called «white negroes» to signify their lowly status.

Do you think we can talk today about the Black Mediterranean as a sort of a reduced Middle Passage?

One of the themes of The Many Headed Hydra was that the “middle passage” was not merely a descriptive term about one phase of a voyage, but a broader concept linking expropriation in one place (West Africa) to exploitation in another (on the plantations of the Americas). The notion of the “middle passage” would also apply to workers who lost their land in Ireland and ended up in London or New York, illustrating what Marx called the “primitive accumulation of capital.” People expropriated in one setting moved (or were moved) to another setting and attached to the capitalist mode of production in a new way, in a new place, in a new class relationship. The same concept would apply to the Mediterranean and its peoples over its vast history.

Coming back to the ship as a factory, in your work about the slave ship, you underline how the ship produces not only labor power and the categories of race, but it also produces counter-knowledges and resistance. And in your research, you found that people on board on those spaces started to call each other “shipmate.” Can you tell us more about this and how do you think this concept is linked to the ships crossing today the Black Mediterranean?

It would take more knowledge than I have to say exactly how the concept applies to the Black Mediterranean, but I would suggest that the starting point for analysis should be the language and understandings of the mobile people who cross the water. What do people on the migrant vessels call each other? During the era of the slave trade the term “shipmate” was used in every major European maritime language, in Portuguese (malungo), Dutch (sibbi or sippi), and French (bâtiment). This in turn was related to the formation of what anthropologists call “fictive kinship,” social ties invented for the sake of solidarity and support. Enslaved Africans did this and so did sailors, who called each other Brother Tar (i). People who found themselves aboard a ship, in unusual circumstances, were forced to innovate, to relate to people in new ways, communicating, singing, dancing, crying, and grieving. Shoreside cultural practices had to be modified at sea. I would expect something like this to take place on migrant ships, where people cooperated with unusual intensity in order to survive. Part of our work it is to listen and record the linguistic and social creativities embodied in the new kinship that can be formed at sea.

By continuing with the counter-practices of resistance and the new subjectivities created by the ship, why it is important today to talk about the slave trade and how it is important to put it as a focus on the political discourse?

It is essential to talk about the slave trade now, because we still live its heavy history and consequences every minute of the day. This is especially true in the former slave societies of the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America, but it is also true for Europe, which benefit- ted massively from the slave trade and the global institution of slavery. The slave ships are ghost ships still sailing around the edges of our modern consciousness. Their legacy in the present is discrimination, deep poverty, structural inequality, and premature death. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd we now have a movement demanding a reckoning with this history. Now is an important time to talk about this part of the past.

I want to underline that it is crucial to talk about the oppression, but we must also talk about the resistance. Africans on slave ships never passively accepted their fate: they fought back, even under extreme circumstances. They were not simply victims, but heroes: they struggled, they died, and they helped to create the movements to abolish the slave trade and slavery itself.

I think this is really important to underline today, because for the dominant narration these practices of resistance and fighting just never happened. And we can see this device also today as regards migrants crossing the Mediterranean: they are dehumanized and deprived of their stories, social profiles, bodies, and reduced into numbers without voice, subjectivity, agency. In the film Ghost of Amistad (ii) you made with Tony Buba – which is made starting from your book The Amistad Rebellion (Viking- Penguin 2012) – you went to Sierra Leone to research who were those people on board of that particular ship, who were they, what kind of social profiles they had, where were they from. There is a moment in the film in which you say, “in that moment I felt that the ghost of the race and slavery and colonialism was literally hovering just above our heads.” Can you tell us about this film and about this concept you use many times in your work about ghosts?

Let me answer this question by discussing anther concept, the “violence of abstraction.” For many years the study of the slave trade was primarily statistical – how many ships, how many people, how many died, and so on – all important things to know. But this approach “sanitized” the slave trade, made it emotionally easier to discuss, but it also tended to hide the real, living, suffering, dying human beings on board the slave ship. The statistical means of analysis had its origins in the ledgers and letterbooks of merchants, who used numbers to hide the de-humanization and the moral consequences of what they were doing. In studying the Amistad case, my guiding questions were simple: who were these people who rose up and captured a slave vessel in 1839 and sailed it to freedom? Where did they come from? What were their lives before they were enslaved? What kind of knowledge and experience did they bring with them from West Africa that allowed them to wage this successful uprising aboard the ship? I sought to overcome the violence of abstraction.

One of the reasons why we made the film is that we wanted to make history real in a visual and personal way, by talking to people about the memory of the Amistad uprising within the oral traditions of Sierra Leone, where all of the rebels had originated. What we found in making the film was that the history of the slave trade has a long afterlife: the lasting legacy of slavery is what the film is all about. That moment you mentioned, when we felt the presence of the «ghost of race and slavery and colonialism», we were in the village of Folu, talking about an ancestor who had been enslaved and ended up on the Amistad but finally returned home. We found a woman elder who was his direct descendant. This was an extraordinary moment for us. Then another villager said, “we are worried that you are gathering this information to prosecute us,” for their kinsman had helped to kill the captain of the Amistad during the revolt. When I first heard this, I did not understand what the man was saying; you can literally see in the film the incomprehension on my face. Suddenly, I realized that the combined histories of race, slavery, and imperialism still created fear, based on an event that had happened 175 years ago! This was the lingering ghostly presence of the slave trade. That film is the record of our effort to understand concretely, in human terms, what the slave trade meant to people in Africa. We wanted to make the history real and to humanize the subjects of history.

We can say that in this sense Ghosts of Amistad is a good example of “history from below”, the research method you work with as a Marxist scholar. How does this method work and in which way it can help us to have access to the histories hidden, cancelled, removed, silenced by the dominant archives?

History from below is difficult to practice because it requires understanding the past from the point of view of people who did not usually leave documents on their own. One must learn to read archival documents against the grain, to learn through them things that people with power, who usually created the documents, did not intend for us to learn. All of my books are histories from below, in one way or another. I read various historical documents and I place them within the force field of struggle, rooted in various kinds of oppression and resistance. I try to understand what those waging the struggle were doing and especially why they were doing it, what they were hoping to gain. In this sense history from below is actually very old; it is not a new methodology. It entails a kind of sympathy for people and their struggles. I try to establish bonds of solidarity with these historical actors; it matters not that they are dead. I try to develop an ethical relationship with them in order to tell their stories in ways that would have made sense to them and at the same time honor what they did. This is something we normally do not talk about: the secret ethical life of books and films. Ghosts of Amistad tries to demonstrate the methods of history from below in action.


i. Tar is a slang term for a sailor, in use since at least 1676. The etymology of the word is probably derived from tarpaulins (cloth), in reference to wide-brimmed hats made of tar-soaked cloth used by early sailors, later shortened to tars.

ii. M. Rediker, T. Buba, Ghosts of Amistad. In the footsteps of the rebels, https://www.ghostsofamistad.com/.

This interview was originally published in Italian in the left magazine Machina.

Gabriella Palermo writes for the Italian magazine Machina.