Sailors, Slaves, Pirates Revolts in the 16th-17th Centuries

by The Editors

From: The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Today, massive unemployment and wars force millions of people to flee their homes.  In the US cities, developers are building luxury residences, pushing people out of their neighborhoods and homes.  In New Orleans, Louisiana State University leveled miles of newly-renovated houses to build its new medical center.

During the 16th to 17th centuries, the European colonists uprooted tens of thousands of people to conquer and settle their stolen territories in the Americas and Caribbean.  US history books recount the flight of English people to the “new world” to escape religious persecution, ignoring the root causes of these movements and the rebellions organized by those displaced.  In The Many-Headed Hydra, Linebaugh and Rediker tell the hidden stories through the eyes of the working class, free and enslaved, European and African, sailors and laborers, men and women, and pirates.

These rebellions originated in the 16th Century in England when its economy shifted from feudalism to early capitalism.  These early capitalists developed manufacturing enterprises in the cities that required a large labor force.  They also sailed to other countries to seize their resources and people, and to develop new markets.

To move rural residents to the cities, the early capitalists passed and enforced the enclosure law that privatized the land.  Most people lived in the countryside and grew their own crops on land called the “commons.”  Like today’s eminent domain practices, the landowners “enclosed” these common lands, kicking people off the land, expropriating the sources of peoples’ survival.  The peasant families starved, sometimes turned to crime, and fled to the newly formed cities to work as wage slaves.  Their homes were hovels, and the work day never ended.

Not all left the land passively though.  They organized rebellions against the enclosure law like some people today fight privatization of public lands and goods, such as schools.  Tenants in the countryside and workers in the city rose up against the enclosure law, diminished resources, and living conditions.  The owners and monarchy sent troublemakers to the “new world” to work the plantations and mines.

In Ireland, English rulers took over the lands and enforced enclosure laws, killing thousands and shipping many to the Caribbean, US colonies, and European countries as slaves.

These violent removals and exploitation in the early colonies created the conditions of rebellion.  Even more importantly, they generated unity among the Europeans, black and white indentured servants, enslaved people, and Native Americans who shared and recognized their common oppressors.  They took over ships, burned down forts and towns, and created new collectively run settlements in the West Indies and US colonies.

These are some of the notable rebellions and alliances:

  • Masaniello revolt in Naples (Hydra)The Masaniello Revolt in Naples in 1647 included workers, sailors, and poor people fighting against the Spanish rulers who increased taxes on food. The rebels went beyond opposing the tax.  They united working class men and women who seized power for 10 days.  They lowered prices of food, burned tax records, provided books to students, opened prisons, and turned rank and file sailors into captains.

Black and white Neopolitans joined forces, and women led major battles.  Plays written about the rebellion emphasized this solidarity.  Sailors debarking in Naples spread the news to other lands.  Spain took back power but modified its taxation practices.

  • Bussa’s-Revolution in BarbadosThe Barbados rebellions in 1649 united Irish and African slaves against barbaric conditions on the sugar plantations of Barbados and nearby islands colonized by the English plantation owners. The English enslaved Native Americans, deported convicts and prostitutes, and workers from other European countries.Workers revolted with arson, escapes, refusal to work, and murder. They joined forces together regardless of their nationality or skin color.  The landowners couldn’t tolerate this unity.  They starved the African slaves forcing them to steal from poor whites which generated fear and hostility.  The elites then distinguished between servants (white) and slaves (Africans) with different legal standings and benefits.  They hired whites to patrol the slaves and allowed them to work in other trades.  This model spread to other plantations and tripled sugar production.

Over the next 2 centuries, African slaves organized 3 rebellions, eventually forcing the British rulers to abolish slavery although racist laws persisted.

Burning of Jamestown Bacon's Rebellion

    Bacon’s Rebellion, Virginia, 1676

White and black indentured servants and slaves, including women, joined forces to protest the colonists’ lack of protection from Native Americans attacks on people living on the Virginia frontier, to demand land, and oppose slavery.  Bacon was a colonist who used the rebels to threaten the rule of the current governor.  The rebels burned down Jamestown and rallied 1000 people to demand changes.  It was the first major rebellion against the colonial rulers.

The multi-racial unity alarmed the rulers.  They used this rebellion as an excuse to divide black and white workers.  They passed laws making it a crime for them to marry or socialize.  They killed and attacked white workers who refused.  It also led to the enslavement of African workers who were easier to control and obtain than white servants.

The ruling class also established the “white superiority” ideology and benefits.  Whites received higher wages as a bribe.  The government bestowed a higher status on them, telling them that whites were “better” than blacks.  Many white servants resisted and continued to fight, but over time, white workers bought into these lies and accepted their better economic and political status relieved that they were not enslaved.  The government of Virginia passed laws to entrench the slavery of Africans, giving white servants policing roles on the plantations.

This ideology and divisiveness persists today.

Co-operative Settlements.

Native Americans, escaped slaves (maroons), and white indentured servants established many co-operative settlements sharing labor, food, and governance.  A group established a settlement in Roanoke in 1640s under the protection of the Tuscarora Indians.  They lived together and intermarried.


Revolts of Sailors and Pirates, early 18th Century 

As the European rulers developed their navies to conquer other lands and people, they employed and exploited sailors from many countries, creating opportunities for cross-national solidarity.  Sailors endured violent working conditions, impressment (seizure), lousy food, and severe injuries.  They developed different forms of rebellion, including piracy and mutinies.  Pirates welcomed rebellious sailors, free and enslaved Africans, and women.  They disrupted the imperialists’ slave and other trade.  Pirates ran their ships more humanely.  They provided good food, collective decision making, and decent conditions.

In the early 18th Century, sailors conducted many mutinies.  Many turned their ships into pirate ships, including ships carrying enslaved Africans.  The slave traders could not tolerate this disruption and violently repressed piracy in the 1720s.  However, the development of large navies for slavery created many experiences for workers of different countries and racial categories to live and fight together.

  • NYC rebellion 1712New York City Urban Rebellion, 1741: The New York Conspiracy 

Workers in New York City organized a revolt against bad economic conditions, food scarcity, and slavery.  Africans, indentured servants, sailors, Irish immigrants joined forces to plan an insurrection to burn Ft. George and other buildings. Each group brought organizing experiences and joined forces in the planning of the rebellion, meeting in taverns throughout the city. On St. Patrick’s Day, 1741, Ft. George burned down with the fire spreading to other buildings.  Thirteen additional fires burned property over the next several weeks.  The government responded with brutality, killing and deporting many, especially Africans whom they blamed for the rebellion.  While the uprising didn’t succeed in fulfilling its demands, it is a landmark of multi-racial and ethnic solidarity and leadership.

  • Haiti slave rebellionCaribbean Revolts

Rebellions by enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and continental US increased during the mid-18th Century.  Over 80 revolts occurred during 1730s and 1740s.  Native populations, Irish indentured workers, and sailors participated in organizing mutinies, torching buildings, threatening plantations, and establishing maroon (runaway) communities.

Jamaican slaves led many uprisings, including the 10 year long Maroon War.  Escaped slaves fled to the interior areas of Jamaica and established communist like societies along with Native people.  They threatened the plantation system leading many small owners to leave their land and sell their slave workers.  The rebels threatened to turn Jamaica over to the Spanish, the main competitors to England.  The English rulers actually agreed to give land and power to the maroons to stop them from supporting Spain.

Other uprisings spread through the West Indies in Dutch and English colonies.  Many Caribbean plantation owners sold their slaves to New York slave owners during this time.  They selectively exported the most rebellious workers, seeding the New York uprisings in 1741 with experienced anti-colonial fighters.

The Haitian Slave Rebellion began in the late 18th Century abolishing colonial control in 1804.

Breaking the rebellions:

The colonists suppressed the rebellions using brutal violence and divisive ideology.  They killed black, Native, and Irish workers and mutinous sailors.  They hung rebellious women as witches.  Workers in England and Ireland protesting against impoverishment were forced into the Navy and maritime industry, imprisoned, hung, and deported to the colonies

While these attacks suppressed many rebellions by eliminating leaders, they did not stop the movement.  Instead, the rulers along with the era’s scientists created a new ideology of racism, designating black people as sub-human and white people as superior.  Financial benefits in the form of higher wages and employment greased the acceptance of this philosophy among the majority of white workers.  The leaders of society assured white workers that they held a higher social status than black workers.  Scientists created the concept of race to explain that racial differences were innate and biological.  These theories continue to operate today.

Lessons for us today:

  • Multi-racial solidarity existed among black, white, and Native workers who shared common enemies and goals
  • Communal communities formed among workers of all backgrounds who shared production and consumption of goods
  • Violence forced slave owners and colonists to abolish slavery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: