The Age of Revolution

Between the 1760s and late 1840s, revolutionary ferment broke out across much of the Atlantic world: erupting in multiple places, spreading inward and outward, moving multi-directionally across Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean, waves of insurrectionary violence toppled thrones and shattered empires. American independence broke in two Britain’s Atlantic dominions, pushed France further towards bankruptcy, and inspired her revolutionaries to overthrow the monarchy and constitute a new republic. Its founding ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity raced across the Atlantic and into the hands of battle-hardened West Indian slave insurgents, who promptly turned them into fearsome anti-imperialist weaponry. In 1804 the new citizens of Haiti declared victory over France, drowning greedy dreams of a second French-American empire in a tidal wave of blood. Napoleon’s attempt to build a European empire instead threw Spain into disarray, and South America into cataclysmic civil war. By the early 1820s, 300 years after its creation, the Spanish American empire shattered into half a dozen new republics.

The bicentenaries of American independence in 1976, the French Revolution in 1989, Haitian independence in 2004, and the abolition of the British slave trade in 2008 have all stimulated renewed engagement with the events of this momentous era. Historians working from a variety of different perspectives have explored the intellectual history of the period and probed its deep chronological roots; they have read against the grain of surviving documents great and small, and uncovered a world of proletarian radicalism central to the powerful transformations of the day; inspired by the growth of world historical research, they have traced global relationships and discovered connections that reached far beyond the well-known sites of revolution in the coastal North Atlantic world. This flurry of new work has significantly broadened our collective research agenda, which now poses questions about causality and coincidence, scope and scale, collective and individual agency, the nature and dynamics of transnational, intercontinental revolution that previous generations did not even know how to ask.

Ships Acting as an Incubator for Maritime Radicalism

The latest special issue from the International Review of Social History (IRSH)  Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey, guest edited by Clare Anderson, Niklas Frykman, Lex Heerma van Voss and Marcus Rediker,  is a collection of essays that  joins the debate by focusing on the complex, multi-layered networks that bound together revolutionary actors in far-distant places.  In particular, the authors uniquely draw attention to the material site of connection itself: the ships that sailed the world’s oceans and connected revolutionaries in Europe with those in the Americas, those in the Americas with fellow radicals in Africa, and those in Africa with rebels in Asia, Oceana, and beyond. But the ship was not just the indispensable vector along which land-based revolutionary experience was dispersed around the world, it was also an incubator of what the editors have chosen to call maritime radicalism, a variant of revolutionary politics particular to the peoples who make their living on, of, or near the sea. The practices that defined maritime radicalism were many – including mass desertion, port city rioting, naval mutiny, slave ship revolt, convict piracy – but their central, unifying tendency lay in the contestation of the violently enforced shipboard hierarchies that characterized European imperial dominance over all the world’s major shipping lanes in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Drawing on sources in nearly a dozen languages, and archives located in nearly as many countries on multiple continents, the volume uses a vast trove of evidence to suggest a new, sea-centered geography of the revolutionary era, a dense and expansive network, reaching across the globe, as well as forward and backward in time, a network of seafarers that brought together, amalgamated, and mutually stimulated struggles in vastly different and distant regions. It is notable that this network almost perfectly coincided with the rapidly unfurling tentacles of European imperialism into the Indian Ocean region, to south-east Asia, and to Australia and the south Pacific. The adoption of a maritime perspective thus suggests the insufficiency of conceiving of this period as simply one of Atlantic revolution.

Free online access to 4 papers from this special issue has been granted until 30th April 2014. 



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