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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 14, April 13, 2024

Review of Markus Rediker et. al. (eds.) A Global History of Runaways | Mark Dunick

Saturday 6 April 2024



A Global History of Runaways:
Workers, Mobility, and Capitalism 1600-1850

by Marcus Rediker, Titas Chakraborty, Matthias van Rossum, eds.

University of California Press
2019. Pages: 280
ISBN: 9780520304369.

Workers on the Run during the Rise of Capitalism

The rise of the European empires between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries led to the creation of an increasingly global economic system based on long-distance trade, commodity production, and military power. All of this required new forms of social organization, not least the exploitation of millions of people whose labor powered the growth of European expansion and early capitalism. These workers suffered various forms of coercion ranging from outright slavery through to indentured or convict labor, as well as military conscription, land theft, and poverty.

A Global History of Runaways is a thought-provoking example of international history from below, focusing on class conflict during the rise of the European empires in the early modern period. Specifically, it looks at the workers who ran away, whether they were slaves, military conscripts, or indentured laborers. In a period where human rights and labor laws were far in the future, the subjects of this book used the only weapon they had, desertion, as a way to escape temporarily or permanently from their oppression. The wide-ranging case studies in this book show the variety of working conditions and environments found in the early modern period and the many ways workers found to subvert and escape from them.

The book originated in two workshops held at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam in 2015, and the Department of History/Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, in 2016. An introductory chapter by Leo Lucassan and Lex Heerma van Voss introduces the themes of the book and outlines the changing nature of the global economy as European empires and capitalism expanded. The infrastructure of empire required the mobilization of millions of workers, ranging from slaves to indentured laborers, soldiers, and sailors. A web of regulation and laws were constructed to control these workers, most of whom were coerced to varying degrees. This system of control was continually contested by the workers themselves, who never ceased to adapt, resist, and run away if they could. This book compares case studies of workers’ resistance to empire from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Eleven chapters, written by senior labor historians, along with a few early-career researchers and PhD students, are presented in chronological order.

Chapter 1, by Timothy Coates, focuses on three locations in the Portuguese empire and the workers who fled from them. The first was the sugar plantations of São Tomé in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The slaves who ran away to form free communities in the interior of the island were an important reason why sugar production eventually shifted to Brazil. Secondly, Coates describes working conditions in the trading posts around the Indian Ocean and the communities of runaways which formed in the Bay of Bengal. The final section focuses on convicts and sinners in Portugal itself, where many managed to escape from forced labor in salt mines.

Johan Heinsen examines convict labor in the Danish colony of Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Denmark awarded the Danish West Indies and Guinea Company the right to transport prisoners to the colony in 1672. The chapter illustrates the social dynamics of the short-lived colony by recounting the story of two convicts who hatched the escape plan, recruited others to the group, including two soldiers, and planned to steal a boat and escape from the island. The plan was discovered and the two convicts sentenced to death. One was forced to execute the other in order to save his own life. The two soldiers involved were also punished but managed to talk their way out of the fate of the convicts. Detailed court records are used to show both the collective nature of the plot and the methods the authorities used to divide and defeat the detainees.

James F. Dator reveals how workers in seventeenth-century St. Kitts Island took advantage of conflict between France and Britain to advance their own interests and plan collective escapes. The two rival powers had divided the island between them, but workers, indigenous people, and slaves cooperated across the borders, developing their own knowledge of geography, boundaries, and imperial rivalries in order to organize, resist, and ultimately escape the island. Dator reinterprets accounts of Irish Catholic rebellions against the British governor, arguing that when seen in the context of the Atlantic their declaration of allegiance to the French king represented an example of workers using imperial rivalries for their own advantage.

Titas Chakraborty looks at the European laborers and soldiers who were employed by the Dutch East India Company and other imperial traders in early eighteenth-century Bengal. The desertion rate among sailors and company staff varied widely in this period, but workers often risked serious punishment in the hope of obtaining better employment conditions and higher wages. Soldiers and sailors found their skills were often in short supply, so deserting their employers and making their way to a rival East India Company was a logical strategy. Others ran still farther away and became highly paid soldiers for indigenous rulers. The companies universally saw this mobility as subversive and a threat to their power, but however they tried to suppress desertion, the only reliable method they found to retain workers was to increase wages.

A chapter by Yevan Terrien focuses on how widespread military desertion in the eighteenth-century French colony of Louisiana undermined colonial ambitions. The colony had a shortage of soldiers, and those they had were often coerced or tricked into service. Around 10 percent attempted desertion during service, and the shortage of military personnel meant they were often in a position to negotiate surrender terms if they were caught for what was a capital offence. Indigenous groups allied to the French also objected to the death penalty and would refuse to hand over deserters captured on their territory unless the French agreed not to execute prisoners.

Nicole Ulrich writes about the distinct traditions of mass desertions that evolved in the Dutch East India Company colony in South Africa. Court records reveal that soldiers, sailors, slaves, convicts, and servants all took part in individual and collective desertion attempts. According to Ulrich, historians of the Cape have often portrayed these desertions in isolation when writing about a particular ethnic or national group. Ulrich argues that the common experience of exploitation often transcended ethnicity and national origins. She outlines the different sectors of the colonial economy and the backgrounds of the workers in each, but shows that their shared experience transcended ethnicity, nation, and gender, creating a shared culture of resistance that enabled desertion.

Mattias von Rossum also writes about the Dutch East India Company but takes a much broader view. He takes issue with historians of the company who have portrayed labor relations as “relatively tranquil.” Von Rossum provides an overview of labor practices of the company, which coerced all of its workers to varying degrees, from wage workers on contract through to convicts, corvee laborers, and slaves. The strategies available to rebellious workers and the methods the company used to control and punish workers are outlined, as well as examples of mutinies, escape, and other forms of resistance by a diverse range of workers. Van Rossum highlights the diversity of the workforce, arguing that although occupational, linguistic, and ethnic differences were obstacles to cooperation, these were often overcome when workers came into close contact and organized resistance against a common enemy.

In the early nineteenth century, a total of 73,000 British convicts were sentenced to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). There, the majority were rented out as laborers to private employers, and all were subjected to surveillance and detailed record keeping. These records allow Hamish Maxwell-Stewart and Michael Quinlan to provide a detailed statistical analysis of desertion rates in different parts of the colonial economy in this chapter. The varying conditions of convict labor in the colony meant it was difficult for authorities to identify runaways, especially as many of the private businesses who employed convicts were only too happy to employ deserters. Maxwell-Stewart and Quinlan argue that the disciplinary regime that convicts were subjected to was similar to that of maritime workers, and the ways convicts resisted harsh working conditions in Van Diemen’s Land was also similar to those of sailors.

When Britain abolished the international slave trade, new forms of indentured labor were created in order to provide British capitalism with the labor it required. Anita Rupprecht investigates the very specific culture of resistance that developed on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands between 1808 and 1828. More than 1,300 Africans were rescued from slavery and sent to Tortola, where officials had to decide how to deal with them. Many were put to work in various forms of indentured labor on the island, and this led to resistance and rebellion. Rupprecht uncovers details about these protests from the documents of a royal commission that investigated the conditions of Africans on the island.

Mary Niall Mitchell provides a fascinating chapter on city maroons in New Orleans. Newspaper advertisements asking for information on runaway slaves are used to build a picture of life in the city between 1830 and 1850, a period when New Orleans was expanding rapidly and runaway slaves were able to blend into multiethnic working-class neighborhoods, gain employment, and live in relative freedom. Some runaways planned to leave the city via the port, but many others had relatives and other contacts in the city, and even enslaved women with children were able to make their escape, obtain work, and live alongside free laborers without being caught by their “owners.”

The final chapter examines the work of the secret antislavery organizations known as vigilance committees in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York between 1835 and 1863. Jesse Olsavsky describes how these organizations acted as part of the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves escape and move around in the cities, as well as working with the major legal antislavery organizations. The vigilance committees interviewed thousands of runaway slaves and contributed to a vast range of antislavery literature, from newspaper articles to novels and autobiographies. Olsavsky uses these sources to show how runaways and antislavery organizers worked together and learned from each other in the vigilance committees.

This collection has several strengths. Firstly, it’s an engrossing account of escapes and adventures. Every chapter features dramatic personal stories of struggle, drama, tragedy, and heroism, recovered from sources that are mostly hostile to the desires of working people. The authors engage with the historiography of the subject period and location, critiquing and challenging histories that neglect or misinterpret the actions of working people resisting oppression and danger. The collection demonstrates that desertion was commonly a collective strategy, not an individual one, and even those escaping on their own depended on preexisting networks and contacts, and above all, knowledge of the political and social environment they were escaping. The introductory chapter by Lucassan and Heerma van Voss emphasizes the commonalities in the ways workers resisted and ran away from exploitation, whether they were slaves in the Virgin Islands, convicts in Tasmania, or soldiers in French Louisiana. The importance of migration in the early modern period is also highlighted, with almost all the workers in the book traveling long distances either forcibly or voluntarily in service of empire.

The impact of “race” and racist ideologies comes up in several chapters, but this topic could have been emphasized more. European ruling-class ideas about white supremacy developed as capitalism spread around the globe, and the interplay between the growth of capitalism and changing ideas about race could have been developed as one of the themes of the book. Nevertheless, A Global History of Runaways is an excellent collection, and readers interested in labor history, migration, and the development of global capitalism will find this book fascinating, insightful, and compelling.

(Reviewer: Mark Dunick (Victoria University of Wellington)

[This work from H-Net is reproduced under a Creative Commons License]

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