September 30th 2020 – The Many-Headed Hydra

As part of our series of discussions exploring Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism (monthly online events till November 2020), on September 30th 2020 we discussed “The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic” by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.

Read a summary of The Many-Headed Hydra and our discussion on Amplify Stroud.

The full text of The Many-Headed Hydra is available online as a pdf, and as ever we encourage people to read as much of the book as possible.

We focussed our discussion on the Introduction and Chapter 6 – “The Outcasts of The Nations of The Earth” – download this section as a .doc text file.

Marshaling an impressive range of original research from archives in the Americas and Europe, the authors of The Many Headed Hydra explore the foundations of our modern global economy, and show how ordinary working people led dozens of rebellions on both sides of the North Atlantic. The rulers of the day called the multiethnic rebels a ‘hydra’ and brutally suppressed their risings, yet some of their ideas fueled the age of revolution. Others, hidden from history and recovered here, have much to teach us about our common humanity.

Chapter 6 explores the the “structure of New York’s commerce”, at a time of slavery and imperialism – part of what the authors call their recovery of a “lost history of the multiethnic class that was essential to the rise of capitalism and the modern, global economy”. As Sukhdev Sandhu writes in his 2001 review of the book for The Guardian: “A central chapter of the book is concerned with what came to be known as the New York Conspiracy. In March 1741, radicals set fire to New York. Fort George, the prime military fortification in British America, was reduced to ashes. Soon, other metropolitan landmarks were torched. These were no random conflagrations. Lying on the west side of Manhattan, Fort George was a site of huge strategic importance for the Atlantic trade and a nodal point of the Britain-Africa-Americas triangle. Slaves and slave products were imported there. It was also populated by a swarm of people whose labours underwrote the city’s wealth, but who themselves were wholly despised.”

The chapter places the events of 1741 in context of a cycle of “multiracial conspiracies” and rebellions of the 1730s and 1740s, and notes how repression of these led to the promotion of “a white identity” in order to “produce new discipline and a different solidarity”.

Content warning: this chapter includes an image of a painting entitled “The hanging of an African in New York”. The book as a whole features other images of this nature, as well as some graphic descriptions of (racist and/or sexual) violence, and quotes historical racist texts.

This event will be followed by two further discussions exploring Geographies and Histories of Racial Capitalism:

October 28th – “The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution” by C.L.R. James

November 25th – “(B)Ordering Britain: Law, race and empire” by Nadine El-Enany.

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