On Writing History From Below

The Pirates’ Ruse, early 19th century engraving. (Library of Congress).

Juan Delgado: Last week we interviewed Harvey Kaye, the writer of the book concerning the Marxist Group of Historians, for this same issue. He told us that his interest in radical history was actually connected to him looking through his grandfather’s library and finding a few books about Thomas Paine. And you yourself said that one of your greatest influences in starting your interest in history was your grandfather, though not in the same way that Harvey’s was. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Marcus Rediker: The oldest influence on my decision to write “history from below” was my grandfather, Fred Robertson, a Kentucky coal miner, and master storyteller. Unlike Harvey, who went to an archive of books, I had an archive of stories. My grandfather told me extraordinary stories, many of them just about working-class people – their triumphs, victories, defeats, their pain, and their glories. He was a brilliant storyteller; he made things come alive.

It took years but I realized, finally, that a lot of the ways in which I write history goes directly back to what he taught me about how to tell a story. One of his ideas was that a good storyteller always tells a big story inside a little story. So, for me, in studying sailors, pirates and enslaved people, I tell the stories of their lives and struggles within the big story of the rise of capitalism. A storyteller has to create understandings on several different levels simultaneously.

JD: This leads us to think about the importance of oral history as a means of communication between generations. In epistemological terms, is there a difference between oral and written history?

MR: Since I study mostly the 18th and 19th centuries, I don’t have the opportunity to do oral history. But I did come face to face with the practice of oral history in making the documentary film Ghosts of Amistad: In the Footsteps of the Rebels, about the famous slave ship revolt in 1839, off the coast of Cuba. To do this, I went to Sierra Leone, in west Africa, with a group of historians and a film crew. This is where most of the Africans from the Amistad had come from. I had found, in the course of my research, the names of their home villages and where they had been enslaved. We located ten of those villages in southern Sierra Leone and drove there to interview local elders about the survival of the Amistad story in the West African oral tradition.

In some villages that there was no memory of the Amistad case; in a few villages there was a little bit of memory; but in two villages there was a lot of memory. We had a fascinating time talking with the elders. I had studied the written documents produced in the USA about the Amistad rebellion and had some knowledge that they did not have.  They had knowledge based on the oral tradition that I did not have. We danced around who knew what. And it was mutually enlightening.

This was an encounter with a living human archive. And I must say that it was tremendously exciting to be able to do this. It made me realize that we have living history around us; that the elders in any society can tell us a great deal about the struggles in the past. Historians need to make greater use of the methods of oral history.

JD: You had the opportunity to see that “dance” between oral and written history. What is the perfect balance between the two? Is there such a thing?

MR: For people who were trained in the West – it may be different elsewhere – documentary sources are the gold standard because memory is tricky and things can be misremembered. The ideal situation is when you have a complementary group of both oral and written sources so that you can verify one with the other.

In going to Sierra Leone, I learned things about the Amistad rebellion that were not written down in any documentary source. That requires an evaluation of the credibility of the oral history source. In this case, I am thinking of someone in particular, a man named Vandi Massaquoi, who knew a tremendous amount about the Amistad rebellion as passed down by his grandfather and great-grandfather. Some of it had been written down, but most of it had not. I was able to evaluate what he knew in relation to the sources that I had studied to see if the two were consistent. And it turned out that they were. I can give you an example:

He told me there was a rebellion in a place called Lomboko, a slave trading factory, led by Cinqué (in Sierra Leone, Sengbe) who would later lead the rebellion on the Amistad. According to Massaquoi he said to his fellow rebels on Lomboko, “it is better to die than to be a slave, so we will rise up and fight.” I had read in the documentation of the Amistad uprising that he had used almost identical words as he was trying to convince his shipmates to rebel. The same man gave the same speech before two different revolts.  This and other connections made me see that Massaquoi’s account was highly credible.

One has to be aware that within oral histories, accounts change over time as new information is added to the story.  They have to be used with care but they are extremely valuable.

JD: One of the most important challenges for those who make history from below, as you yourself have explained on different occasions, is that the group of people you try to study often does not speak through documents of their own making. Their voices need to be heard through official reports and documents, generally made by representatives of the ruling classes. Is this particularly difficult in maritime history? How can a historian interested in the working classes avoid this obstacle? You make a lot of references to poetry and art.

MR: In writing history from below, almost anything and everything can count as a source, whether a painting, a popular story, a song, whatever it may be. And of course documents. You always have to try to find documents.

That means reading documents that are often produced by ruling classes or their servants.  You read them against the grain; you read them between the lines; or to use a phrase that the British historian EP Thompson once used: “You hold the source up to a satanic light and read it backwards.” In that sentence he alluded to witchcraft because the misogynist persecutors of witchcraft in the seventeenth century believed that witches could read backwards. But that’s the idea: you have to make the source reveal secrets that perhaps even their creator did not understand.

The careful reading of sources is important but so is their creative discovery. Here is advice for people who want to write history from below: whatever society you are studying, in whatever time period, you must figure out how that society created documentation about the lives of poor people. And of course one of the main ways this happens is through court records, because poor people almost always end up on the wrong side of the law. Court records were central to my first book, on deep-sea sailors in the 18th century.

I found rich court documents about riots, piracy, murder, and wage disputes. Sailors appeared in court to testify and scribes wrote down what they said. These were rich ethnographic sources. Every time a sailor explained what happened on a ship, for example, in a mutiny, he also explained how things usually work and what went wrong. These documents allowed me to reconstruct the self-understanding of sailors and at times to recover their actual voices. You have to be careful because the documents were mediated by court authorities, which meant that class influence and power relationships were embedded in the source. Go to the archives of poor houses, prisons, armies, and navies – a lot of poor people end up in these institutions. Find the documents and read them in a Satanic light.

JD: How would you define maritime history? How is it contrasted with what you called “terracentrism”?

MR: In my view, maritime history involves the history of all the people who have worked on the water or near the water. It also involves the movement of commodities, people, ideas across the water. It is about understanding the rivers and oceans of the world as material spaces where history happens.

I coined a term, “terracentrism.” For years, as I wrote about the struggles that took place at sea, I came up against a bias of modern thought, in which people simply could not see things that I thought were important. Why were things that happened at sea so frequently invisible? Finally I came up with this notion of ​​terracentrism: most people assume that history happens on land, within nation states. They smuggle into that conception the idea that the oceans of the world are somehow not real places, that they are voids where history does not happen. But of course we know that the history of capitalism has a powerful maritime dimension: class formation happens at sea, race formation too. The sea is a place where global historical processes unfold.

My work has tried to overcome this bias, but the task is not easy. Terracentrism is all the more powerful because it is unconscious. Now a few historical fields do not have it: naval history and the history of exploration are inescapably maritime. But almost all national stories are land-based; maritime space is marginalized. I have tried to make the maritime more central to understanding how history happens.

JD: Your studies about maritime history cover a lot of topics, but you focus mainly on what you define as “the Atlantic working class”, which is actually a very unique concept. How did the Atlantic Ocean influence the configuration of the working class? Do you think that assuming the possibility of the existence of an intercontinental working class, prior to the global consolidation of capitalism, implies defending a certain conception of what a “social class” is?

MR: One of my main arguments is that class formation happened at sea. The ship was a kind of factory, where wage laborers were brought together to cooperate, within the division of labor, under the subjection of violent discipline, to produce value. Sailors did not produce commodities, but they did produce value by transporting of commodities through space.

If you look at the ship as a factory you see the origins and development of capitalism in a new way. It was the labor of sailors that created the global economy; without ships and without sailors to run them the connections and communications among the continents remained limited. The global economy is specifically a product of maritime labor because sailors occupied a strategic position in this division of labor.

What happens at sea in the 18th century is a process of class formation, in which maritime workers increasingly see themselves as having a common interest against those who own and run the ships and organize the capitalist system. Most people don’t know it, but the English word “strike” comes from the sea. During a wage dispute in London in 1768 sailors went from ship to ship up and down the river, taking down or “striking” the sails.  The ships did not sail and the working class had a new kind of power called the “strike”. Class formation happened at sea and came ashore.

This brings us, as you said, to the question of what a class is. Peter Linebaugh and I, when we wrote The Many-Headed Hydra, were very keen to provide both a different chronology of labor history and a different way of understanding labor history beyond the nation state. The dominant labor historiography at that time was national: “The Making of the English Working Class,” or the French, or the Argentine. But the nation-state does not define the working class.

What we wanted to show is that there was another class beyond the nation-state that we called the “Atlantic proletariat,” which was crucial to the origins and development of capitalism. And out of that class, new national working classes would be fashioned. We didn’t write about this process in the book, but one of the implications of the work is that there was a transition from transnational proletariat to national working class. This happened in Great Britain, France, and the USA during the 1830s. It happened somewhat later in other countries.

Here is why this is important: the traditional definition of the working class had been essentially structural and, after E.P. Thompson, cultural. We were not satisfied with either of those conceptions. We were very interested in an experiential definition of the working class, one that included both waged and unwaged labor, especially the work of enslaved people and women who performed domestic work. We wanted to broaden the conception of the working class beyond its industrial experience, to show that value, wealth, and resistance were all being created far beyond the nation state.

JD: Although the class definition of E.P. Thompson and the British Communist Party Historians Group was not enough for you, was their work an influence?

MR: It was a tremendous influence. In fact, let me tell you the origin of “The Many-Headed Hydra” because it addresses the point specifically.

Peter and I were interested in what Christopher Hill wrote about the “revolution” within the English Revolution, the outburst of radicalism in the 1640s and 1650s, all of which was defeated with the return of monarchy in 1660. Thompson takes up the story of resurgent radicalism in Great Britain in 1790, in a Jacobin moment: the French Revolution, the Irish rebellion, the revolution in Haiti. There was a delay, or a pause, between these two moments, between the English Revolution and the radicalism of 1790s.  Peter and I set out to understand what happened to the working-class radicalism during the pause. We found the answer out on the Atlantic.

Hill and Thompson shaped our work, but we offered a critique of their national framing of radical movements, particularly in England at that time. The Many-Headed Hydra was both a love song to our teachers, and also a criticism that they worked too narrowly to understand the issues that they were studying.  I might add that Hill was extremely receptive to this new approach. He loved the idea and he was actually present at the conference (in 1981) where Peter and I first made the critique. He encouraged us and in fact he became interested in Atlantic radicalism himself.

JD: And what about E.P. Thompson?

MR: We began working on these issues in 1981, but Peter and I were both writing other books at the time: I was working on Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and he was working on The London Hanged so we did not have full time to devote ourselves to “The Many-Headed Hydra.” Thompson knew about the project, but I think he was more critical, perhaps, than Hill. Since he passed away in 1993, we were unable to present him with the book.

JD: What role did maritime economic life play in the circulation of radical ideas at the dawn of capitalism? We are interested in the idea of ​​the “proletarian public sphere” that you describe in some of your recent works. Were those radical ideas connected with what was happening on earth, with the different levels of enclosures, the progressive dispossession of the European working classes and the American colonization?

MR: This is an important theme. The truth is, radical ideas have been circulating for as long as there have been people on boats to carry them. If you go back to Utopia by Sir Thomas More, it begins with a sailor who came home from the sea and told the story about people who lived without private property. Such circulation was common.

We have to remember that sailors, dockworkers, and all those who work close to the water are not just workers; they are also thinkers. As they work and cooperate with each other, they exchange not only labor, they exchange thoughts about what they are doing, thoughts about the ways of the world. We need “intellectual history from below.” How can we think about workers as thinkers, as people who are more than brute labor? In this situation, in any port city, the docks have long been a kind of proletarian public sphere where the circulation of ideas is especially rapid and influential. And particularly complex, because these places, whether in Argentina or the US, are the most multi-ethnic places in those countries. Different kinds of people and traditions come together. As people are unified by their work, they also have the opportunity to unify their ideas. This happens on ships, where new ideas are formed, like the strike, but it also happens in ports. There is a constant circulation between struggles on land and at sea. I offer the example of a British radical named Thomas Spence. We talked a bit about him in The Many-Headed Hydra. An excellent new book by Matilde Cazzola will make him much better known. He was one of the first theorists and defenders of the commons. He wrote and organized against enclosure in the 1760s and ‘70s. By the 1790s, Spencer was a key figure in the world of London radicalism, with special strength among soldiers and even more importantly sailors. He wrote more and more about the sea and began to see the oceans of the world as an alternative space to capitalism. He anticipated some of the ideas we talked about in the book.

Spence shows how ideas from the land circulated to sea, got modified, and then came back. We are looking at a dynamic process of change. This is something I saw happen on slave ships, where people from 15-20 west African ethnic and national groups came together to develop new cultural forms in a process of resistance: new languages, new songs, new ways of cooperation, new ways of struggle. These things happened at sea. The circulation of ideas and practices from land to sea and back again is a great theme and I have no doubt that it is also crucial for the history of Argentina.

JD: One of your premises is that these revolts of slaves, sailors and pirates are part of a coherent opposition to capitalism. It was clear that they resisted what we now call capitalism and that they experienced expropriation and dispossession. There is a bias that indicates that resistance to capitalism began with the consolidation of an industrial working class. Perhaps it all stems from the fact that when the industrial working class appeared, it began to have a more complete idea of ​​what a future society would be like, a postulation of a radically new society. Do you think that one must postulate a new society to resist the existing one? And in that case, did these forms of resistance have an idea of ​​a new society? Or was it a reactive resistance?

MR: Marx says that capitalism began in late 16th-century England. It is also true that communism as we know it, has an even older history, mostly among radical Protestants in Europe and especially in England. And in the struggle for the commons, the English Revolution was very important, as Christopher Hill wrote.

It has always seemed strange to me that even though global capitalism and the world market were well established by the 18th century, labor historians seemed to think that the history of the working class begins in the 1830s. Why? So much had happened earlier.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the purposes of The Many-Headed Hydra was to offer a longer framework for understanding the history of the proletariat. It is too limiting to say that capitalism begins with industrialism. Capitalism was clearly widespread around the world long before modern industry took off. That’s the first point. Rethinking the chronology of working-class history is important, as is rethinking the subjects of labor history. So, rather than concentrate in white male industrial worker, we offered a different portrait of who made up the working class: it was, and is, a “motley crew” of men, women and children who were crucial to the rise of capitalism.

And then we come to the “Many-Headed Hydra”, which is not only a metaphor, but also a concept that helps us to think about heterogeneity within unity. What were the different heads of the hydra in the 18th-century Atlantic? African slaves, sailors, servants, urban rioters – a variety of workers who were making history.  The hydra helps us to think about the nature of social struggles in a way that broadens the picture and deepens the understanding of the traditions of working-class people.

“We make the path as we walk the path”: there are moments, like the English Revolution, when an entirely new vision of possibility emerges, when a movement has such force that suddenly it can articulate a clear alternative social order. But those visions are frequently defeated and forced back underground. People remember portions of the vision and keep them alive. We found that the memory of the English Revolution survived around the Atlantic. Some of those elements of radicalism were combined with new struggles to create something even more powerful. C.L.R James talked about “the future in the present”: we need to see how present struggles embody possible futures. That’s really critical. But it is always a process, and it is always linked to what working people were actually doing, what kind of resistance they are creating at any given moment. It was one of James’s great strengths to say that we must study working-class self-activity past and present.

JD: You have also deeply studied the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. You even called it the “world’s first social movement.” To what extent was it global? Did abolitionists interact with other working class groups?

MR: This is an important definitional question. How we see the abolitionist movement depends on whether we look at it from below or from above. If you look at it from above, it appears to be a movement of mostly white, metropolitan, middle- and upper-class men, like William Wilberforce, an aristocratic symbol of British abolitionism. If you look at abolitionism from below, the first thing you have to do, in my view, is to acknowledge that the first abolitionists are enslaved people themselves. Their struggles against slavery on a daily basis were ground zero of abolitionism. Until recently, the historiography of abolitionism largely left out the history of slave resistance, which is a terrible mistake. Manisha Sinha’s terrific book, The Slave’s Cause, reunites the two movements. My book The Amistad Rebellion is about the alliance between African insurgents and mostly white middle-class abolitionists.

If you look from below, you see a different wellspring of the abolitionist movement, something genuinely international, including west Africa, slave ships, port cities, and the entire Atlantic, the cradle of capitalism. You can’t look at it in a strictly national way if you think about abolitionism from below. It all comes down to who you consider to be an abolitionist. People like Wilberforce were actually educated by people more directly involved in the struggle. Thomas Clarkson, who was much more important to British abolitionism than Wilberforce, went to the docks to interview sailors, Black and white, to find out what was happening on the ships. That is how he was educated and that is how the slave trade was finally abolished in 1807: it was because of the circulation of knowledge from those ships, through the ports, through sailors, to the abolitionist movement. The approach from below is giving us a new understanding of what that movement actually was.

JD: Did abolitionism contribute to the formation of anti-capitalism? Or were they separate battles?

MR: They were closely related. David Roediger has written about how the idea of ​​the general strike came out of the anti-slavery movement in what they called the “Grand Jubilee.” It is an idea from the Bible about how work will cease and land will be returned to those from whom it had been taken. The history of anti-capitalism is closely related to all the struggles against slavery. We need to rethink what it has meant to be anti-capitalist.

JD: What can history teach us from below to confront current capitalism? We are experiencing new forms of oppression, on the one hand, at the same time that there has been a massive proliferation of social movements to resist them (the women’s movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, among others), on the other. In general we are faced with the problem of how to articulate these movements. Do you think we can solve that problem by looking at things from a historical perspective?

MR: If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be a historian!  Back in the 1990s Howard Zinn said something to me that is still true today: there are more people working on radical and progressive campaigns now than there were at the peak of the movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Vastly more people.

But there is a big difference. A half century ago everyone felt connected to each other. They felt that if you struggled against the Vietnam War, against white supremacy, for women’s rights, all those things were connected and we could, in fact, create a broad-based liberation. What has happened since that time is that our movement has become extremely fragmented. The labor activist does not talk to the feminist activist, who does not talk to the environmental activist.  This fragmentation is a strategy from above and it weakens us. Identity politics feed the fragmentation.

We need new unifying ideas. We can find them in the past. The Many-Headed Hydra is full of powerful interracial struggles from the 17th and 18th centuries. These took place before the modern notions of ​​race and class were created before paths of struggle separated and diverged. Looking back we can see a “motley crew” fighting for social justice, and that can help us. We can bring struggles from the past to the present.  We can take power from historical memory.

Movements from below can surprise you. You just don’t know when they are going to explode. No one foresaw the global anti-racist mobilization that followed the assassination of George Floyd. Looking back at the Amistad rebellion, no one saw that a revolt on a small vessel off the north coast of Cuba could explode into a transatlantic controversy in which the most powerful people in the world debated the meaning of the event.

These movements can appear at any time and that very unpredictability can give us hope. The question then becomes what do we make of them? What kinds of new organizations do we build in order to maintain unity as we move forward? One of the things that interests me about our recent history is this: what will be the future equivalent of the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee created in the sixties during the fight for civil rights? What will be the equivalent of Students for Democratic Society that grew from the antiwar movement? What new organizations will allow us to move forward?

And one final thought, to underline something Angela Davis has been saying. She has emphasized that this latest round of activism in the United States, which in many ways is unprecedented, could never have been possible without the fifty years of patient organizing from below that people have been doing around prisons, homelessness, race, class, and gender. When we are surprised by how things burst into the open, we need to remember the work has been going on, sometimes invisibly, for a long time. This is how traditions of radicalism are preserved and transmitted.

For the last forty years, since the rise of Thatcher and Reagan in 1979-1980, we have lived through a period of global reaction. The many activists who remained in the struggle have helped to keep the continuities alive from one generation to the other. We must remember and appreciate their hard work.

This interview originally appeared in Spanish in the Argentine magazine Sociedad Futura.

Marcus Rediker teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Slave Ship: A Human History, The Amistad Rebellion, and (with Peter Linebaugh) The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic Juan Delgado writes for Sociedad Futura.