Hyperrhiz 12: Reviews/interview

Marcus Rediker, Outlaws of the Atlantic

Jessica Floyd


Marcus Rediker. Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail. Beacon Press: Boston, Massachusetts, 2014. Print.


Rediker's Outlaws begins with how the common sailor, known colloquially as Jack Tar, shares yarns of his voyages, his experiences, his yearnings, and his fears to fill the void of time while at sea and to band himself together with the other Tars on ship. Yarns built a sense of community and articulated desires and longings, but they were also how sailors transported information about justice, change, and collective action. Drawing from historical accounts and narratives written by those considered "outlaws" by the upper-gentry or those in power during the Great Age of Sail (roughly 1600-1850), Rediker's work positions the seaman, merchant sailor, captive or prisoner, slave, and pirate, as one of the early modern agents of social, political, and economic revolution. He expresses that "In the age of sail, the workers of the wooden world were themselves, in their minds and bodies, vectors of global communication." Outlaws engages with the transient, cosmopolitan mediator, Jack Tar (and other sea travelers) and demonstrates how a man of the world altered the landscape of the Atlantic both at land and at sea: he makes the argument that the sailing men of this age shaped the new world by the early modern shipping industry. Rediker goes as far as to say that "Salt was the seasoning of the anti-slavery movement" indicating that Jack Tar even lead the charge against grave affronts to early human rights.

Drawing on over 30 years of research in Atlantic and Early American History, Outlaws introduces the reader to common types of seafaring men and discusses how they turned outlaw and ultimately became agents of social change. Rediker begins with an anecdote his mother told him about Jesse and Frank James, "the notorious James boys, who robbed banks all over the Upper South and Midwest and became two of the greatest outlaws in all of American history," and utilizes her suggestion that " 'They's good boys. Jus' got in a lil' trouble, is all.'" Her definition of outlaws forms the framework for a very important and transformative challenge that Rediker issues to scholars: the term outlaw takes on a new definition and connotation and the reader soon learns, through carefully organized chapters, how sailors, slaves, and other "outlaws of the Atlantic" were simply "good boys" who found themselves in "trouble [d]" situations and how they individually and collectively fashioned ways to gain power and agency against harsh waters, difficult lives, and powerful ruling forces. Rediker mentions that "sailors, slaves, pirates, and motley crews shaped a history we have long regarded as white, elite, national, and landed" and through this, brings sailors, pirates, and "motely crews" to a new level of significance.

Throughout the course of Outlaws, Rediker introduces the reader to short sketches of how these sailing men helped define nations and territories, fought unjust labor laws and strictures, paved the way for working class uprisings, sowed the seeds of revolution, and helped launch the abolitionist movements. Through this, he challenges the reader to realize that "history, in my view, [is] seen from the wrong end of the spyglass." His research opens the floor for more scholars to investigate the ways in which Jack Tar, and other seafaring men, shaped the political and social landscape of the new world. Those in power shape history and Rediker urges scholars to consider an alternate view: looking from the perspective of those persecuted by those in a position of power. Rediker mentions that "those historical figures some see as heroes, others see as criminals. And the reverse is true: those historical figures some see as criminals, others see as heroes. This is often the way of the outlaw." Thus Rediker desires a reconstruction of history, from the bottom, up and for scholars and researchers to become outlaws and to free the voices of those silenced or passed over by history. For Rediker, the sailor, "Long derided as marginal and liminal, quaint and exotic, the seaman at long last emerges as a preeminent worker of the world, a cosmopolitan in the truest sense, who shaped the history of our planet in profound and lasting ways."

Outlaws sets the stage for future studies that could view the maritime world, and the ship itself, as a radical and transformative space; interestingly, he casts the importance of mutiny and the pirate in a new and more positive light. For Rediker, the pirate and the mutinous seaman function as a representation of what occurs when sailors collectively fight back against oppressors, gain control of the ship, and then fashion a new sense of law and justice on the high seas. In Outlaws, pirate ships were represented as a place of democracy and stood in direct opposition to the merchant ships that most pirates fled or overtook. These collective oppositions symbolically and literally demonstrated the strength and possibilities in numbers. Through the camaraderie of shared suffering and injustice, victims of the early modern slave trade and of early capitalism created a blueprint for social action and ultimate social change. Rediker intimates that those considered outlaws should, perhaps, be seen as social radicals bent on banding together to enforce justice. Rediker trains the spyglass more deeply into the nuances of ship and Atlantic life, using mutinous pirates and other seafaring men as a mode of re-telling history from the bottom up.

Through the metaphor of the spyglass, a researcher could focus on what history has neglected to touch and this could expose certain aspects of history; mainly, the possibilities of outlaw sexuality on merchant sailing ships. Outlaws contains some discussion of how sailors and slaves utilized their bodies (in starving them, flinging them overboard, withstanding corporal punishment, and even submitting to execution); however, there remains space left for the discussion of the way in which the body, as a sexual thing, represents a means by which norms and mores are disrupted and reimagined both on ship and in port. Through the metaphor of the spyglass, the researcher could train the scholarly eye onto the actual body of the sailor, namely, the sexual organ and sexual drive of the sailor and analyze the ways in which the sailor, as a sexual being, combatted the strictures inherent in the homosocial environment of ship life and how he re-ordered or re-articulated desire within its confines. Very few texts exist that delve into the complicated relationship that the men had with one another while at sea, even though a wealth of folklore and song illustrate the nature of sex and sexuality on the high seas. The ways that sailors negotiate sex and sexuality seems a thing of myth and hearsay, with very little historical evidence to say otherwise; thus, a historical inquiry into the nature of sex and sexuality, on ship, would texture the landscape of Atlantic history. The ship is a mainly heteronormative space and men are captive and bound to the ship for sometimes years at a time and only have the camaraderie of other men living in the same situation; thus, it would be an important contribution to understand the ways in which sexual frustration and desire would manifest on board ship and the ways in which the men (who identify as heterosexual), collectively or individually, navigate, combat, and engage with sexual desires within the confines of a uniquely forced homosocial environment, even when it may be against heteronormative confines and expectations.

Men toil together and combat the terrifying power of nature together, often to their own deaths, and this makes the ship a unique space. This historical inquiry could answer questions about how sex and sexuality could illustrate a mode through which men sought power or dominance against forces where they had little to no control. Throughout the research, would the men, in Judith Butler's phrase, "desire otherwise" in an attempt to combat their own loneliness, powerlessness, and frustration, or would they be victims of others' forced desires and similar feelings of disempowerment and sense of mortality? What secrets may history hold about the outlaw sexuality of the Atlantic?


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http://dx.doi.org/10.20415/hyp/012.r02