Commons at Sea

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From a review of the Many-Headed Hydra, by Do or Die magazine:

"In the near-century between the 1670s and the mid-18th century, radical struggles on land seemed to disappear, but a new threat arose at sea to challenge the plans of the English elite. The radical ideas of the English revolution, exiled by the Cromwellian counter-revolution, found a new home on board the sailing ship, where they circulated around the Atlantic world.

Radicalism came easily to 17th century seamen, many of whom were press-ganged into the Navy and were effectively slaves. Sailors were subject to the most vicious regime of punishment imaginable in order to enforce work-discipline. Sailing ships were the engines driving the development of early capitalism but they were also the scene of sustained resistance, as sailors rioted, mutinied, deserted, and went on strike. The most developed expression of this seamen's resistance was piracy. All these practices and tactics were carried and communicated around the world by sailors. The sailing ship served as "a forcing house of internationalism" (p. 151) in which working people of all different races and backgrounds were thrown together and in which news and ideas from all over the world were exchanged. Sailors even developed their own pidgin language to communicate between speakers of different languages. This became a language of resistance, spoken in port cities around the Atlantic and conveniently incomprehensible to landlubbers.

By the end of the 17th century England was a global superpower. The threat of piracy was the one thing to cast a shadow over this happy prospect. The pirates of the late 17th and early 18th century - the 'golden age' of piracy - were multi-racial (many were escaped slaves) and libertarian. It was said that "there is so little Government and Subordination among [pirates], that they are, on Occasion, all Captains, all Leaders." (p. 163) They were essentially multi-racial maroon communities at war with slavery, similar to those renegade tribes hidden deep in the forests of the Americas, but they took to the high seas while others hid in the mountains or jungle.

A massive campaign of terror was launched to extinguish the threat of piracy. This was mainly due to the threat it posed to the slave trade. A law was drafted for the suppression of piracy, a naval squadron was sent to West Africa and large numbers of pirates were captured and executed. By 1730 piracy was defeated, but again, the radicals, although defeated, were not destroyed - the tradition of maritime radicalism continued as an underground current, appearing in mutinies, strikes and rebellions around the Atlantic world." (

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