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In the 17th and 18th centuries, 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.