Peter Linebaugh has produced another masterful history “from below”. This author is no respecter of national borders. This is a history of the struggle for commons over the centuries, both intellectually and geographically. It ranges from 18th century Ireland, across the Atlantic Ocean, itself the pathway of the fluid trade in human bodies from which capitalism emerged, to the slave uprising in San Domingue, now Haiti.
Linebaugh rejects history defined by epochs, instead identifying the continuous thread of exploitation which has manifested itself in the Anthropocene. It is at this point, between the turn of the 18th century and the 19th century, scientists have learned from glaciological evidence that concentrations of “greenhouse gases” began to appear. Whereas, says the author, the Industrial Revolution has been a term discussed in terms of progress, the Anthropocene “portends catastrophe” in the 21st century.
There is an urgency here. Linebaugh invokes the “battle of Seattle 1999” in the very first sentence. He goes on to discuss the struggle of those resisting enclosures led by the Zapatistas in Mexico, the seed preservers of Bangladesh, women on the Niger River delta protesting against oil spills and the thousands protecting the water at Standing Rock. This is a warning for all who want to live in a global environment managed for need not profit.
Linebaugh directs his attention to myriad aspects of the struggle against enclosure, interweaving them with the love story of the onetime governor of Honduras (now Belize) the Irishman, Captain Edward (Ned) Despard and his African Caribbean wife Catherine (Kate). They petitioned, unsuccessfully, leading government figures to save his life after the death sentence he received following the discovery of the conspiracy to kill King George III. Linebaugh ponders on Kate’s virtual disappearance from history. It is known that she travelled to Ireland and had a connection with the United Irishmen but he can’t even find a grave.
Catherine Despard for me is a metaphor for loss, for those stories of individuals whose voices have been silenced, buried by the pens of historians for reasons of race, sex and class but whose narrative is carefully shaped to analyse and lionise their own national heroes.
This richly detailed perspective on our global history requires that the reader manages several seemingly tangential strands of information. The skill of this imaginative historian, however, is to be able to reach into the lives and circumstances of those who have dedicated themselves to preserving and retrieving the spaces that were once common to all, regardless of where they lived on this planet, and then to locate and connect them in a contemporary world which is defined by action.
In my view Peter Linebaugh has powerfully and eloquently drawn those strands together to explain the necessity of unity from below, often in a moving and inspiring way.
Linebaugh pays due respect to Edward Thompson, author of the seminal The Making of the English Working Class. In language that is sometimes visceral, imaginative and often sublimely eloquent he analyses the conditions in which people were living and working, making connections, while leaving the reader with a global overview of the struggle against colonial and imperial power.
Linebaugh has produced a work of exceptional clarity within a framework of solidarity with those who make our history from below. It is a scholarly work which is also accessible and deserves to be read widely.