Marcus Rediker is a historian, writer, teacher and activist. He is author of four books, all "history from the bottom up," most recently Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Verso). He teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. Here, he kindly answers a few of my questions:
Mark Thwaite: What began your fascination with pirates and piracy?
Marcus Rediker: It was an accidental beginning, which is one way of saying, I suppose, that I never intended to write a book about pirates. I had no personal connection to the sea, having grown up in landlocked Kentucky and Tennessee in the upper south of the US When I entered graduate school in the mid-1970s I wanted to do the kind of work being done at Warwick by Edward Thompson, Peter Linebaugh, and others – that is, to use legal records to write the history of working people who left no records of their own. “History from the bottom up” or “peoples’ history” as it was called. So I looked around for a group of historical subjects who had caused enough of a ruckus in their day to create substantial documentation. I settled on pirates.
The research led to a first published essay on pirates in 1981, and I have been their captive ever since. The driving fascination has been not only individual but collective, in the US and the U.K. especially, and around the world too. In the more than two decades since I wrote that essay, rarely has a week gone by without a stranger calling to talk about pirates. Journalists, film-makers, playwrights, underwater archaeologists, novelists, and sheer enthusiasts have called again and again, and in so doing they taught me about our deep cultural enchantment with these outlaws. We simply cannot get enough of them.
Yet I must be a slow learner. Over the years publishers kept inviting me to write a book about pirates, and I kept saying no, I had other books I wanted to write. The turning point came in 2001 as I taught the history of piracy while sailing on a floating university around the world (Semester-at-Sea). My rowdy gang of pirate-loving students hectored me mercilessly to write the book, and they prevailed. I finally understood that I should put down on paper what I have learned about pirates. This is how Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age happened.
MT: Do you see writing about the history of working class resistance as part of the ongoing struggle for justice?
MR: I certainly do. It is easy to forget how narrow, tendentious, and biased history books were until the new left came along and demanded a completely different, more inclusive account of the past. Over the past generation we have witnessed a stunning democratization of history, as many who were long excluded – working men and women, and of many colors – have finally found a place and recovered a voice in the history books.
But the old conservative histories of great men and national glory persist. A couple of years ago I gave a lecture at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and I began with a quote by Jamaica Kincaid, who wrote, "In the Antigua that I knew, we lived on a street named after an English maritime criminal, Horatio Nelson, and all the other streets around us were named after some other English maritime criminals. There was Rodney Street, there was Hood Street, and there was Drake Street." As I read the words, many in the audience gasped, literally. Kincaid had insulted the hero and turned the national past upside down. I used the quotation to make the point that one person’s hero is another person’s criminal. As with Nelson, so with pirates, in reverse: the law does not a criminal make and some so-called "criminals" are heroes, in their own day and in ours. It is all a matter of whether one looks at history from the top down or the bottom up.
To retrieve the bottom-up perspective is, in my eye, itself an act of justice. It is an expression of solidarity with exploited and oppressed people past and present. The American poet Thomas McGrath wrote:
I’ve lived, truly, in a Custer’s Massacre of sad sacks
Who sang in my ear their histories and my own.
And out of these ghosts I bring these harvest dead
Into the light of speech . . .
Where now the citizens dream in a sleep of fire –
This is how I felt after finishing The Many-Headed Hydra, which chronicles one massacre after another of the nameless people who built the material foundations of the modern world and got nothing but oblivion for it.
I believe we can learn from the histories of the "harvest dead." I also believe there is a poetics of peoples' history, and that if we can capture the poetry of struggle, the beauty and truth of what people have tried to do for themselves, often under the most difficult circumstances and at the cost of their lives, if we can bring them into the light of speech, we can take their example as inspiration and guidance, perhaps even use it wake the slumbering citizens. This point is a star I steer by.
MT: It is hugely interesting to see examples of working class struggle and organisation in the 17th and 18th centuries. Your book, according to a reviewer on Amazon, is "a beautifully written celebration of the spirit of defiance of the untameable Promethean multitudes who ended slavery, and created the ideas of a cooperative political economy and culture, of those who 'dare seize the fire', in William Blake's words." I'd agree. But does this ancient history contain real lessons for today?
MR: One of the most important lessons is that almost every good, humane, emancipationist idea we have we owe to a previous struggle and indeed usually to several of them. The Many-Headed Hydra suggested that practical ideas of democracy, equality, communism, and anti-slavery originated not in the heads of philosophers or statesmen, but rather in the actions of working people, who then in turn frequently inspired the philosophers and statesmen! We wanted to show that the working class has an intellectual history, many old ideas of its own making and incessant renewal, and that these might be useful to us in our struggles in the present. Globalization is centuries old and so is resistance to it.
MT: On your website you mention the work of Midnight Notes. Of all the progressive groups out there are Midnight Notes the "team" you would most support!?
MR: I think Midnight Notes has offered some of the most trenchant analysis of world affairs to be found anywhere over the past twenty years, whether on the Cold War, the peace movement, the oil politics of the Middle East, the "new enclosures", or the recomposition of the planetary proletariat. I would encourage your readers to learn more about this remarkable group.
Much of my recent political work has concerned the death penalty, how to abolish it in the U.S, and around the world. I have worked for years on the case of the former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been unjustly imprisoned on death row in Pennsylvania for twenty-two years now. I do a lot of public speaking against the death penalty as part of a group called the Pennsylvania Abolitionists United against the Death Penalty. I am happy to say that I think we are winning this battle and that the death penalty will be abolished in the US in the coming years.
MT: With which traditions of writing do you identify?
MR: My tradition is originally Southern, working-class, populist, and low-church Protestant (essentially Baptist). I have a lot of pride in my family, which was made up of miners, tenant farmers, workers of all kinds. My brother Shayne is a shop steward in a factory in Richmond, Virginia, and is deeply involved in a United Mine Worker’s campaign as I write these words.
This family background is my foundation, upon which has been added the experience and ideas of numerous social and political movements beginning in the late 1960s. I have already mentioned the inheritance of history from the bottom up (Thompson and Hill in the UK, Jesse Lemisch, Alfred F. Young, and Staughton Lynd in the US). I would add the black radical tradition of C.L.R. James, W.E.B. DuBois, and Walter Rodney. The Italian new left has been an influence, as have Liberation Theology, the women’s movement, and countless other movements.
MT: Do you prefer writing alone or with someone else (as you did with Peter Linebaugh in The Many-Headed Hydra)?
MR: I have written solo, in duo (with Peter), and as part of a team (with the American Social History Project on Who Built America?, volume I). I liked all three. Collaborative work is hard, not least because most writers and historians are trained to be artisans – that is, solitary, creative individuals enacting the art and mystery of the craft. I am happy I have had the opportunities to do things a little differently ...
MT: What is coming next?
MR: I am now writing a history of the slave ship. I am approaching the slave ship as a machine, a world-transforming technology for the formation of labor power and race on a global scale. I am also interested in how the decks of the slave ship became a stage for four interrelated dramas: between captain and crew; between the crew and the enslaved; among the enslaved; and between pro- and anti-slavery movements as they battled over the image of the slave ship and the future of slavery. The shipbuilder's diagram of the slave ship Brookes, which showed 482 "tight-packed" slaves distributed around the decks of the vessel, eventually helped the movement abolish the slave trade in Britain in 1807, in the United States in 1808.
I plan to finish this book in time for the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007-2008, when there will much discussion of historic injustice and how to respond to it, through reparations and other means.
MT: What is your favourite book? Who is your favourite writer?
MR: I couldn’t settle on a single favorite . The most influential may have been Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (1972). I first read it during the heady, post-1968 days of the counterculture, as the world was still wobbling if not quite turned upside down. I was working in a factory in Richmond, Virginia (where my brother now works). The book humbled me, excited me, and opened up a an entire world of possibilities, historical and political. I was humbled because I was shocked to learn that we of the late 60s and early 70s had not invented the radical ideas that were then floating around, including communes, free love, and participatory democracy. I was excited because I felt that our movement suddenly had three hundred years of history and power behind it.
I will never forget the exhilarating feeling as I read on the book's last page the words of the Quaker Edward Burrough, who at the moment of the English Revolution’s defeat, before the Restoration Parliament, said: "If you should destroy these vessels, yet our principles you can never extinguish, but they will live for ever, and enter into other bodies to live and speak and act." These principles had somehow gotten into my body, and I wanted to figure out how. The book showed me then, and it continues to show me now, every time I reread it, what a committed people's history can and should be.
Other favorites include classics such as C.L.R. James' Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) and Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1938). Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged (1991), is one of the most original and important works of history published in recent years.
When I finished The Many-Headed Hydra I celebrated by reading the collected works of the great and mysterious proletarian writer B Traven. I read Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang as I was making my way around Australia for the first time, and that was a powerful social history in the form of a novel. Josephine Humphreys' novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, about a tri-racial Indian community in civil-war North Carolina, is a profound exploration of race, class, and place.
I like the poetry of Martín Espada and Dennis Brutus, and the plays of Naomi Wallace. Over the past year I have spent a lot of time reading about the magnificent folk art traditions of Haiti. I am transfixed by the way in which many Haitian painters (for example, Celestin Faustin and Jacques-Enguerrand Gourgue) have fused an indigenous aesthetic of vodou with French metropolitan surrealism.
MT: What book do you wish you had written?
MR: When I read Barry Unsworth’s novel about the slave trade, Sacred Hunger, I had the eerie sense that I was writing the same book. That of course was The Many-Headed Hydra, published some years later. Those two books invent the eighteenth century, its peoples, and its seascapes in similar ways. And now in my new project I find that I turn even more specifically to the subject Unsworth treated.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
MR: Maybe one. Writing has to be a labor of love. As long as it is, surprising things can happen. One of my greatest and most astonishing joys as a writer came when I published a poem, my first one ever (at the age of forty-nine!), about my mother, who had died shortly before. I had been writing poetry for years, and finally, at the encouragement of a friend, I submitted this one to a literary journal, Illuminations. This small, unexpected publication has meant more to me than I can say. I can only wish your readers similar pleasures.
MT: Anything else you'd like to say?
MR: Thank you for inviting me to do this interview, and good luck with your website. As the pirates used to say, "one and all" or solidarity.
MT: Thanks so much for your time Marcus - all the very best!