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Marcus Rediker's Outlaws of the Atlantic

The Pitt historian explores the overlooked influence of sailors and pirates in the age of sail

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A big theme in the work of historian Marcus Rediker is his critique of "terracentrism": the idea that history happens only on land. In his newest book, the University of Pittsburgh professor adds more wind to the sails of the notion that the modern world — its economics, politics, art — is largely a product of life at sea.

Outlaws of the Atlantic also furthers Rediker's focus on what he calls "history from below," in which the works of commoners get as much weight as the acts of kings. And, as a book subtitled "Sailors, Pirates and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail," it's an especially enjoyable voyage.

From the 16th century through the mid-19th, sailboats were the literal vessels of global commerce. That circumstance, Rediker argues, created the modern idea of labor as a commodity, for instance. It also gave nominally lowly sailors a near-monopoly on intercontinental information. Their (typically verbal) communications influenced everything from slave rebellions to high culture (from Shakespeare to, obviously, Defoe).

Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic
  • Photo courtesy of Jim Burke
  • Marcus Rediker

Rediker delivers engaging narratives, including the incredible story of Henry Pitman, a British physician court-ordered into slavery for treason who escaped in the Caribbean only to be marooned by pirates. There's also Edward Barlow, a veteran 17th-century British seaman and writer, and a social critic after Rediker's own heart, especially regarding the growing inequalities of wealth in Britan.

Rediker, whose earlier works include 2007's magisterial The Slave Ship, also surveys the bigger picture with an iconoclastic look at pirate culture. It was a highly egalitarian society, he writes — they elected their captains! — with some Robin Hood in its creed: "Pirates constructed a culture of masterless men" and in their own way influenced Western political thought.

Rediker, who also wrote 2012's The Amistad Rebellion, revisits that famous episode to emphasize "the alchemy of chains mutating, under the hard pressure of resistance, into the bonds of community" at sea. He also offers a fascinating analysis of how popular opinion (especially toward piracy) might have influenced the Amistad case in court.

And then there were "motley crews," or protest mobs that in colonial and early America included both black slaves and white sailors. Perhaps most provocatively, Rediker argues that motley crews, with their rebellions against impressment, their mutinies and insurrections, were a key influence on the American independence movement. Later, he adds wittily, "Salt was the seasoning of the antislavery movement."

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