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The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  903 ratings  ·  76 reviews
Using a decade of original research into the 17th and 18th century, this text unearths ideas and stories about liberty, democracy and freedom that terrified the ruling classes of the time and form the foundations of modern revolutions.
Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 16th 2001 by Beacon Press (MA) (first published 2000)
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Start your review of The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic
Michael Meeuwis
Jun 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
Somewhere between two and four stars. This is very much in the mould of those sixties Marxist British historians that nearly made me want to become a historian: stirring, sweeping, and somewhat simplifying in terms of its use of categories. The authors contend that the maritime world of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries was a place where Britain tended to sweep its proto-revolutionaries, who met with sailors and indigenous peoples and forged this sort of rebellious populace whom they te ...more
Sep 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Just for the subject matter, I love this book. Peasants, slaves, and sailors in constant revolt? That is something I want to read about. Histories of this period always focus on the kings, on the "brave explorers", on the international treaties. I'm way more interested in what the billions of people living at the time were doing, what their lives looked like, what they thought about the course history was following. This is a history that is woefully unknown and hidden. And it is really, incredi ...more
Jul 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Short version: go, read this book. I'd let you borrow my copy, but there's a line, and I had already started hyping it up to friends before I finished it.

Longer version: first of all, you might be worried that I'm leading you into a painful/boring/dry reading experience by having you read a history by some autonomist Marxists. And you would be totally, absolutely wrong. This is by far not only one of the most enjoyable to read history books I've ever read, it ranks up there as enjoyable and enga
Sara Salem
Nov 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
FANTASTIC book on how sailors and slaves were central to capitalist development and were its main resistors.
Alfaniel Aldavan
Nov 03, 2013 marked it as to-read
Dealing with the Many-Headed Hydra

It's easy to rewrite history. Easier than it is to write history, but, it does require that you have control over the venues where history books are sold.

Then, you can start. Burn some writings, they did not have the right tone for the place you're making. Push out some people, they were troublemakers and it didn't look good in the media for you. Cut down many heads of the Hydra, but not all.
No, not all, but close. Leave up some, to "prove" your good faith in fr
Dec 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
I had a much easier time with this book on a second read several years later. I think one of the challenges I had is that this book is so historically dense, with characters and events that have little explanation and are sometimes assumed to be known (by historians).

Anyhow, this book chronicles uprisings and insurrections from the 16th to 18th transatlantic revolutionary period. In a similar vein to Federici's Caliban and the Witch, a history is uncovered where it was previously obscured. And,
Nov 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: humanities
I really enjoyed this book! The only major caveat is that I get the impression that its take is a bit optimistic about both the power relations within the "hydra", or at least it doesn't talk about them that often, leading to a relatively rosy picture of solidarity across race/gender/class lines. Not to say that it doesn't discuss the selling out of oppressed people that came along with the creation of whiteness and the formation of modern gender relations, it just doesn't center them as much as ...more
Nov 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
I'm currently re-reading this and so far haven't encountered any of the convoluted writing or arguments that were such an impediment before. (Seems to be a common complaint). Maybe this is just a book that requires more than one reading, or subject matter that can't be understood in one reading.

This time around I'm reading the MESSINGAROUND edition.

First Time:
As I read this I kept going back and forth between, "This is awesome!" and "am, I actually enjoying this?" And then "this is really intere
Jon Morgan
May 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent, expansive treatment of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries across the Atlantic world, highlighting the intense tricontinental links that forged early industrial capitalism but also created the spaces for resistance to it. The text does a solid job of bringing together multiple independent stories from the emerging proletariat, especially those of slaves and sailors, and creating a cohesive thesis through them without homogenizing or glossing over their diffe ...more
Oct 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An essential, expansive and foundation shaking read. A version of this should be taught to all. Resistance is our heritage and our present and for me this book is the alpha and omega of radical history. A profound, enormous book.
Oct 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Marxists, socialists, anarchists, radical historians
Shelves: library
This is an excellent history of the rise of "global capitalism" and its opposition during the 17th and 18th Centuries, from a marxist historical perspective. Linebaugh and Rediker attempt to reconstruct a history "from below" by extracting from the history written by the winners (in this case, the Empire, the Trading Companies, and the bourgeoise). By expounding upon two reoccurring themes found throughout the dominant history -- Hercules' slaying of the hydra and Joshua's enslaving of the Gibeo ...more
Oct 08, 2011 rated it it was ok
I don't normally put down history books but this one has quickly become grating. There's little narrative coherency (in the sense of building some sort of comprehensible idea of what is going on in the historical period), and it seems like it's just cheerleading for those the "excluded" through dramatic snapshots of oppressor vs oppressed, with continual reference to the Hercules vs Hydra myth that is interesting in a incidental sort of way but hardly of any explanatory value. I am certainly ope ...more
Jan 01, 2010 rated it liked it
i really like this book for the amazing information it possesses, but the nebulous writing style really hurts it. this is basically a book about the spawning of capitalism, and the resistance to it, on both sides of the Atlantic, from 1600-1800. it deals with slavery and slave revolts, indentured servitude and pirates, land enclosures and Levellers, witch hunts and women heretics, and the Irish! the book is amazing for showing how the original anti-capitalist movements were very multiracial, mul ...more
Jul 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
The book offers a nice cut into the pre-history of the class system. By taking upon the infrastructure that emerged through the naval connections across the Atlantic, the authors take seriously the myth of Hydra in order to display the multitudous character of the formation of social identities, be it those of piracy or of race. This becomes visible through the efforts the authors made in deciphering episodes from different revolutionary/insurgent struggles.
The controversy of the book lies with
Kevin Tole
Excellent history book which would go into my top five all time favourite history books

This springs from the gratitude to Christopher Hill and the analysis by generally Marxist historians of the English Revolution and particularly through and extending the work within 'The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.

Linebaugh and Rediker follow a teasing and beautifully connected line from the outcasts of the English Revolution and its subsequent counter-revolution and
Aug 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Don by: Bridget Anderson
Shelves: history, politics
This is the best book I've read in a long time. A brilliant historial account of the emergence of the working class during an earlier stage of globalisation, before rigid ideologies of nationalism and racism had been forged and where solidarities could be formed which extended beyond the prejudices of ethnicity. At the heart of this process was the highest form of technology of the day - the trans-Atlantic ship. The authors look at the relations of production that were forged in order for the po ...more
Oct 10, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
An important reclaiming of multiracial organising, revolt and rebellion against the enclosure of the commons, imperial conquest, and slavery before the bounds of race and nation were too tightly defined sundering apart the lower classes, and an attempt to tell this history from a bottom up perspective. It is a fascinating and important history, but one I almost gave 3 stars the attempt to recover individual voices there is by necessity a great deal of imagination and stretching of the o ...more
Aug 06, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
The Many-Headed Hydra is a dense, complex and truly insightful book about what being a commoner, a proletarian, a slave meant from the early 16th to the early 19th century. It also a amazing history of these exploited people who were revolutionaries. Linebaugh and Rediker bring these forgotten struggles back to life, which is much-needed in our times since communism has reduced all these struggles to a single view of classes and since racialism has divided blacks and whites and since nationalism ...more
Dec 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This book ought to be a follow-up read to Zinn's "People's History of the US", and I was surprised when I found it that it isn't a more popular read. Beginning with the enclosure movement in England (this was when folks started throwing up fences around commonly farmed land and kicking people out), we track the ugly growth of capitalism and trans-Atlantic trade through to the rise of the United States. Told through accounts of struggles which have been buried by mainstream history (well, except ...more
J.M. Hushour
Feb 23, 2013 rated it really liked it
A hesitantly Marxist look at revolutionary, bottom-up resistance to capitalist oppression, slavery, and the death of the commons around the Atlantic rim during the 17th-18th centuries leading up to the American Revolution. Awesome stuff, good bits on piracy, Levellers, etc. Goes far to show how common human decency and a love of freedom against indomitable odds should surge one forth!
Sep 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: slavery, history
A wonderful history of the people in a time of sharpening class conflict and the development of racial laws to strengthen class divisions. Resistance and resilience from history to inspire people today.
Wendy Myren
Sep 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Really great history about the commoners, slaves, pirates, proletariats, and other groups who were targeted by the government as problems that needed to be destroyed. Shows a different story of the struggles of the lower classes across the Atlantic to paint an overall picture of Atlantic history
Feb 01, 2019 added it
Shelves: nonfiction
My friend recently acquired a very cheap sailboat and has formed an extremely motley neighborhood crew of wannabe sailors. Most of our experience with boats and ships is from Moby Dick, so we’ll see how we fare on the open water. But, before the weather is warm enough to move the boat, we’re starting a reading group. The Many-Headed Hydra is about resisting capitalism, centralized power, and national borders. There are stories of pirates, religious utopias, and enslaved people, women, and other ...more
Owen Walsh
Jan 12, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Simply an essential work of historical materialism. History from below at its most exciting. Thrillingly romantic and energising, but ultimately sober and scholarly in its methodology, arguments, and conclusions. Incredibly rich, expansive, humane, and eloquent. A truly wonderful book.
Scott Blackburn
Jul 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
I'm reading Tacky's Revolt by Vincent Brown so I went back to this book and reread a few chapters. I remember how hard it was to read the first time around mostly because of how dense the histories are. But that was younger me getting in the way. I think I might reread the full book soon. ...more
Michael Elkon
Feb 17, 2016 rated it liked it
After reading "A Spy Among Friends," which was a lengthy description of the values of the British upper class circa the 20th century, I decided that it would be a useful tonic to read a little Marxist history that focuses on those outside of the elite. I picked this book up at the Carlos Museum bookstore, which is a great spot to find offbeat books that one would not otherwise find. "The Many-Headed Hydra" fit the bill. It's not an easy read, as the authors tend to meander from topic to topic. T ...more
Oct 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fantastic and engrossing tale of how different radical political currents swept around the Atlantic and between England, the European colonies in America, the Caribbean, and West Africa during the 1600s and 1700s, and how they threatened the elites of the time and their preferred racial and class order. Lots of very engaging tales of interesting characters, insurrection plots, slave revolts, and mutinies, that is merged with more overarching analysis of how politics and economics in the Atlantic ...more
Feb 21, 2015 rated it it was ok
Makes a fine gift for the Marxist in your life. I will definitely pay this forward to my voting friends.

The book would be much stronger if the authors took their conclusion, which they've mysteriously saved for the end, and moved it up to the introduction. You know, like a thesis statement? That way, the reader could grasp their argument without having to wade through the evidence. Without that argument spelled out at the beginning, we end up meandering through so many old-time stories of genoc
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
May 16, 2013 marked it as maybe-read-sometime
Recommended to Snail in Danger (Sid) by: The Black Count (Reiss)
Shelves: history
I ran into an unexpected complication here — an insufficient familiarity with the post-Tudor period, especially the English Civil War. People who are into medieval and early modern history tend to fixate on the Tudor period, because (as Diane Duane noted in Omnitopia Dawn), there's "Such a flowering of the arts and sciences — and so many fascinating personalities." Unfortunately, the Tudor monarchs' hands were really no cleaner than those of any governmental entity, and this book starts out by r ...more
Sep 02, 2013 rated it liked it
I won The Many-Headed Hydra as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

Linebaugh and Rediker look at the social history of England, the eastern seaboard of North America, the Caribbean, and the ocean that connected them, from early colonization to the turn of the 19th century. Told from the perspective of Marxist historians, the emphasis is generally put on class, but within that distinction are stories of racial, religious, and political minorities.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the book wasn't s
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Peter Linebaugh is an American Marxist historian who specializes in British history, Irish history, labor history, and the history of the colonial Atlantic.

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“Female prophecy must be situated in the crisis of reproduction in the middle of the seventeenth century. This was the peak period for the criminalization of women in England and throughout Europe, as prosecutions for infanticide, abortion, and witchcraft reached their highest rate. It was also the period in which men began to wrest control of reproduction from women (male midwives appeared in 1625 and forceps soon thereafter); previously, "childbirth and the lying-in period were a kind of ritual collectively staged and controlled by women, from which men were usually excluded." Since the ruling class had begun to recognize its interest in increased fecundity, "attention was focussed on the 'population' as fundamental category for economic and political analysis." The simultaneous births of modern obstetrics and modern demography were responses to this crisis. Both, like the witchcraft prosecutions, sought to rationalize social reproduction in a capitalist context - that is, as the breeding of labor power. A recurring motif in the ruling-class imagination was intercourse between the English witch and the "black man" - a devil or imp. The terror was not limited to an imaginary chamber of horrors; it was an actuality of counterevolution.” 3 likes
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