Marcus Rediker: "I took an interest in pirates and sailors because they were poor."

The pirates' ruse luring a merchantman in the olden days, 1896. via Library of Congress.

First published in Libération. Translated by David Broder.

He is extremely polite, and he also represents a rather rare commodity: a far-left American historian. Born in 1951, Marcus Rediker is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a specialist in the pirates and sailors of the Atlantic, and considers the outlaws of the ocean — slaves and sailors — as the true, forgotten actors in revolutions past and the abolition of slavery. Swimming against the tides of national history, he proposes a transnational history. For in the course of their journeys the men of the sea mixed together across national divides. Another particularity of Rediker’s is his attachment to "history from below," a current that the historian Eric Hobsbawm particularly embodies. In his efforts to study the experience of the insubordinate, Rediker uses the documents that they themselves produced, such as their personal diaries. His book Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail — which has now been published in French translation by Seuil — brings together a collection of articles reflecting his three decades of research on the slave trade and rebel slaves and sailors. This work begins with a story about Rediker’s own mother, speaking of the bandits she herself saw.

Why did you take an interest in outlaws?

Everyone loves outlaws: we like to hear the stories they are the heroes of. But I took an interest in pirates and sailors not because they were outlaws but because they were poor, and because the documents that concern them were not being sufficiently used. Sailors and pirates also interest me because they move around: they are transnational, at the intersection of multiple authorities and multiple economic systems, which they themselves feed and give expression to. Their traffic has considerably influenced the course of history. But they are of no interest to nationalist historians concentrated on their own countries: what I call "terracentric" historians, to whom I am opposed.

How would you define yourself politically?

Far-left. I have never belonged to a party but I have read a lot of Marx and read a lot on anarchism. In the United States, historians are largely liberals, so I am an exception: I am categorised as far-left, and I accept this. But that does not mean that I feel isolated, since I travel a huge amount. Pittsburgh is a gigantic university, with an excellent history department, a recognised one… so that is all fine.

What did your parents do?

My family on my mother’s side is working-class and comes from Kentucky. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my mother’s father, a miner who adored telling stories. I was the first in my family to go to university. I got there in 1969, a moment when things were really coming to the boil because of the Vietnam War. But I arrived on campus as a basketball player, and not as an activist or historian. Then politics began to become a passion of mine. Thanks to the movements for social liberation, in this same period history began taking interest in the people it had until that point excluded: the poor, the workers, the people who built the United States. That is what made me want to become a historian: to take part in this new progressive current and imagine a better future.

Where does the expression "history from below" come from?

Georges Lefebvre, a historian of the French Revolution, used it in the 1930s. This was a new way of working, and in different countries it gave rise to different kinds of currents. In France it produced social history, Braudel and Le Roy Ladurie. In the English-speaking world, it gave rise to more people-centred works. We sought to understand how people had freed themselves. In Germany, historians concentrated on everyday life. It is the most democratic way of working, the most egalitarian kind of history. It allows us to show how popular movements influence the course of things. My last book is not the most significant work from the point of view of history from below, such as I practise it. But take the one on the Amistad rebellion: in 1839 slaves rose up against the captain of the ship that was transporting them, and took control of the vessel. This had considerable consequences for the fight against slavery. Moreover, with the documents I use — for instance, personal diaries — I set myself apart from those historians who only look at statistics in order to draw their conclusions, practising what I call the violence of abstraction.

Were the private diaries kept by these men not re-written?

Yes, they often were, but I use hundreds of other documents. When you practise history from below, you particularly have to concern yourself with what the institutions of repression wrote about the poor, and on their behalf: for instance, the minutes taken during a trial or in a prison. You have to know how to decipher these documents, reading them against the grain, hearing what is not written down and comparing it with other sources. It is through this intersection that the truth takes shape. But the poor themselves also produce remarkable documents. Take Edward Barlow, a late-seventeenth century English sailor discussed in this book. He taught himself how to read and write, and kept his diary to bear witness to the difficulty of surviving in his condition. He had to fight to get paid. The state enlisted a lot of men in the navy by force. He wrote the diary across forty years, protecting his pages with bamboo so that the water would not damage his writing. For me, this diary is worth its weight in gold. It is kept at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We could compare these exceptional documents with the accounts written by American slaves, for instance Frederick Douglass’s Narrative.

Once he was free Frederick Douglass became a Republican politician…

Yes, but they were not the same Republicans as now!

You write that sailors and pirates felt "empathy for all social suffering." Was there not racism in their ranks?

They were not structurally progressive. On the slave transport ships, some of the crew did have sympathy for the slaves. And I discovered something astonishing: when they disembarked in the ports, sailors suffering from malaria were cared for by black women. This is remarkable, because these same sailors were tasked with keeping watch over the slaves. So, in certain situations, the boundary between whites and blacks no longer held. If a pirate ship attacked a vessel, the question was not if such and such person was black or white, but whether he would defend the boat against the assailants or join them.

Were the pirates abolitionists?

As a whole, no. But certain pirates helped slaves break free or, when they seized control of a boat, proposed to the slaves that they could join them and thus escape from their condition.

Were there women among the pirates?

There were two famous women pirates in the eighteenth century: Mary Read, who was English, and Anne Bonny, who was Irish. Mary Read was a sailor and hid behind a masculine identity when the vessel she was on was captured by pirates. She had the choice of joining their ranks or leaving again on her own ship. She chose the pirates. And the incredible coincidence was that Anne Bonny was part of their crew. Mary Read kept her masculine identity and the two women became very close. Read was as burly as a soldier. She became the mistress of a pirate, who another man then challenged to a duel. Fearing that her lover might be wounded, she herself confronted this man on land, before it could take place. And she won the duel.

In your foreword, you are critical of Joseph Conrad and Michel Foucault. Do you nonetheless enjoy reading these authors?

I do like Conrad, and above all I have closely read Foucault. I even corresponded with him a little. Both Conrad and Foucault considered the sea as an unreal space, "a place without a place" as Foucault put it. But for me it is a real place where history is made. This, again, is "terracentrism," concentrating only on what happens on dry land. Conrad and Foucault are both guilty of this. Nonetheless I will give credit to Foucault for one thing: he wrote that we should thank the pirates because they allowed us to imagine a better world, and that their disappearance was to the benefit of the police. As for Conrad, he like Kipling was on the Empire’s side. For me Conrad is less valuable than Melville, who did have his eyes open to other people and deeply understood the power relations at play on a boat and on the high seas.

Are your books controversial in the United States?

Of course — and that is what I would wish for. Some of my books are more polemical than others. When The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic proposed a re-reading of the American Revolution, this caused a bit of a stir. Conversely, when I write on slavery, there is a certain reaction, but rather less so, because those who disagree fear being treated as racists.

What is your next book about?

It will be a portrait of Benjamin Lay, an English philosopher, Quaker dwarf and fervent abolitionist.