In the 17th and 18th centurie s, at the height of the Age of Sail, famous sea captains like the British Royal Navy’s Horatio Nelson and the explorer James Cook gathered recognition and treasure. The anonymous sailors who crewed their ships, meanwhile, got to travel the world—but under tough conditions. Pressed up against one another in close quarters, the average seaman ate poorly and suffered from shipboard diseases. A large number were permanently disabled in combat, or through accidents; many died far from home.
Even if their names are largely unknown to us now, sailors didn’t suffer these indignities without leaving their mark on the modern world. In a new book, “Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail” (Beacon Press), Marcus Rediker, a historian at the University of Pittsburgh, argues that the stresses and strains of the sailor’s life incubated radical new ways of thinking about labor, and about citizens’ relationship to the state.
The history of the maritime working class is hard to write, because primary documents are scarce. Many sailors were illiterate. One chapter of Rediker’s book looks at an extraordinary document—the 40-year diary of Edward Barlow, a 17th-century seaman who protected his work from shipboard life by preserving it in a joint of bamboo sealed with wax. But Barlow’s diary is unusual. To fill in the blanks, the historian turned to court records of shipboard conflicts, folk songs, and sailors’ yarns, using those sources to excavate a longer history of democratic thinking among sailors. Along the way, Rediker delves into what he describes as longtime fascinations: shipboard labor disputes; the resistance strategies of people imprisoned on slave ships; the “counterculture” of the pirate’s life.
Sailors, Rediker argues, should be recognized as critical contributors to both the American Revolution and the abolition of slavery. “Within the closed, repressive space of the ship, an engine of capitalism,” Rediker writes, “emerged dreams of freedom, stories of new ways of being, transcendent and sometimes utopian.”
Rediker spoke with Ideas from Philadelphia, where he was researching his next book.
IDEAS: One of the arguments you make is that sailors formed a cosmopolitan or multinational working class during the Age of Sail. What did nationhood mean to sailors?
REDIKER: The creation of the maritime empires required the cooperation of many different kinds of workers from many different parts of the world. And it showed up in seafaring first. If you look at the crew manifests for voyages like Columbus and Magellan, you see a motley crew. You see Greek sailors and African sailors and sailors from a remarkable swath of the earth’s surface. . . . To say that this international working class is multiethnic doesn’t mean that it’s free of conflict. You will have Protestants and Catholics on the same ship and they fight it out. You may have black workers and white workers who had great tensions among them. . . . What I’m interested in is the way in which the organized cooperation of these groups was absolutely central to the movement of ships and the movement of the commodities of the world.
IDEAS: What was it about working on a ship that cultivated a democratic ethos?
REDIKER: The confined area of a ship . . . was basically a sort of a hothouse of work relations. Everything is intensified because you can’t escape it. Authority on board a ship was extreme, but it was also highly personal. Everything was symbolic in its operation.
It was really sailors who invented the modern “strike.” In London in 1768, there was a big wage cut and sailors went from ship to ship and took down the sails of each ship. They struck the sails . . . That’s where the word comes from. The strike was invented, the working class had a new form of power. This was something that grew out of the experience of working at sea.
It was also a work environment that was dangerous . . . in terms of the natural environment, but also dangerous in a personal sense, in terms of your relationship with this captain, who had the power to flog you to death—literally. . . . You had to figure out a way to fight back.
IDEAS: You point out that pirates were societies of seafarers with a more bottom-up structure of organization.
REDIKER: Piracy was a counterculture to the larger culture of maritime labor. . . . These sailors built an alternative order to the way that ships ran in the merchant shipping and the Royal Navy. . . . They ran those ships so differently. They divided up the loot much more evenly than you would find anywhere else.
They had a real sense of power . . . you chose the captain, rather than have the captain chosen for you. . . . Pirates would also limit the captain’s power. They could depose the captain if they didn’t like him. They would limit his ability to whip them. They would elect a quartermaster to keep the captain in line. So there are all these fascinating proto-democratic things they’re doing.
IDEAS: What was the connection between sailors and the inception of the American Revolution? You write that impressment—the legal forced recruitment of sailors into the British Navy—played a big part.
REDIKER: The struggle against impressment was literally a struggle for liberty. “Liberty,” in this era, was taking on a much broader connotation. Sailors . . . led the way as they organized themselves to battle royal authority, because press gangs were the longest and strongest arms of state power. Sailors fought it. In fighting it, they encouraged other colonists to fight for their rights at the same time. To identify the king as the source of oppression, as a tyrant. . . . They knew what a tyrant was like. They lived with them on board these ships. . . . So it doesn’t surprise me at all that they should in a sense lead the way in fighting royal power, or tyrannical power, in the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s.
IDEAS: What were some things that sailors did as part of the Revolution?
REDIKER: They formed mobs. They formed crowds who would do things like capture a ship’s boat and set it on fire, or they would fight with press gangs on the streets. The events that led up to the Boston Massacre are a very good example. Groups of working men, including sailors, got into fights with off-duty British soldiers who were working at lower wages in waterfront jobs. . . . One thing led to another and the redcoats fired and killed several people, including the Afro-Indian sailor Crispus Attucks, who in some ways was a very powerful symbol of this multiethnic class along the wharf.
[Sailors] played a leading role in practically every port city disturbance in the entire period. They played a leading role in the struggle against the Stamp Act. They roughed up royal officials. . . . The skills the sailors had were obviously important to the Boston Tea Party. You had to know how to get aboard those ships, haul the cargo up, take the casks of tea apart, and that required sailors’ skill.
IDEAS: There were also instances in which sailors had abolitionist sympathies, alongside antiroyalist sentiments.
REDIKER: Sailors actually played an important part in educating abolitionists about what happened in the slave trade. Thomas Clarkson, a great abolitionist, went down to the docks to talk to sailors in Bristol and Liverpool. He found these disaffected sailors, some of whom were of African descent, who were willing to tell him what kinds of horrors happened on those ships, both to the enslaved and to sailors. And this all became a very important part of the education of the broader public. Because Clarkson used the stories, the yarns, which he got from sailors, to educate the reading public and to build to the consensus that slavery had to be abolished.
IDEAS: You point out that historians once thought of the history of the sea as less important than what happened on land. That’s changing now. Why?
REDIKER: Today, in this globalized world, in which the national stories don’t make as much sense any more, people are now looking at these cross-cultural connections—whether it’s in the story of borderlands, or maritime histories—and suddenly those people, like sailors, who were once considered marginal are central. Our frame has changed, and the frame is more global now. In that context, sailors and seafaring people play a much larger role.
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.