In recognition of American Independence Day, we present this adapted excerpt — on the important role played by multiracial seaport crowds in the American Revolution, and the counterrevolution that would foreclose their participation in the nation to come — from Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker's The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic.
In October 1765 a mob of sailors wearing blackface and masks, armed with clubs and cutlasses, visited the home of a wealthy Charleston merchant named Henry Laurens. Eighty strong and warm with drink and anger, they had come to protest the Stamp Act, recently passed by Parliament to raise tax revenues in the American colonies. Responding to the rumor that Laurens had stored in his home the stamped paper everyone would be forced to buy in order to conduct the business of daily life, they chanted, "Liberty, Liberty, & Stamp’d Paper," and demanded that he turn it over so that they could destroy it in an act of defiance. Laurens was rattled, as he later explained: they "not only menaced very loudly but now & then handled me pretty uncouthly." Finally convinced that Laurens did not have the paper, the men dispersed across the waterfront, shedding their disguises and straggling into the smoky taverns and bare boarding houses, onto the damp wharves and creaky ships. Their protest had consequences. Parliament, taken aback by colonial resistance, would soon repeal the Stamp Act. And in Charleston, one thing would lead to another, as another mob would meet in January 1766 to cry again for liberty. This time the protesters were African slaves, whose action caused greater fear and "vast trouble throughout the province." Armed patrols stalked the city’s streets for almost two weeks, but the tumult continued. Since Charleston’s harbor was crowded with ships, the seafarers were soon "in motion and commotion again," styling themselves, said a cynical Laurens, the "Protectors of Liberty." South Carolina Governor William Bull would later look back over the events of late 1765 and early 1766 and blame Charleston’s turmoil on "disorderly negroes, and more disorderly sailors."
18 years after Steven Spielberg’s sentimental courtroom drama, Amistad, a new film based upon the 1839 slave-ship mutiny has been released. Directed by Tony Buba and based upon Marcus Rediker’s book The Amistad Rebellion: The Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom, it chronicles a trip made to Sierra Leone in May 2013 to visit the home villages of those who took part in the mutiny. The film is a fascinating account of the attempt to reconstruct the African origins of the rebellion and uses the knowledge of villagers, fishermen, and truck drivers to recover a lost history from below in the struggle against slavery.