Marcus Rediker says it was pirates, slaves, and motley crews who shaped the modern world, not the big heroes we hear so much about

Historians in the News

In his new book, Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, Marcus Rediker, distinguished professor of Atlantic history at the University of Pittsburgh, turns that assumption upside down, showing that many of the ideas that shaped the modern world were, in fact, born on the ocean waves among sailors, pirates, and slaves.

Here he explains how Johnny Depp got it wrong, why Horatio Nelson can be regarded as a "maritime criminal," and how a motley crew in Boston inspiredSamuel Adams to coin one of the defining phrases of the Declaration of Independence.

You say that we've been looking at history "through the wrong end of the spyglass." What do you mean by that?

I mean that we have concentrated on the glories of the great national heroes and neglected the people whose labor made them possible. If we want to understand how the world was connected, how the continents became part of the planet in an interactive way, we must understand the ships and the sailors who made those links.

Concentrating on Captain Cook and Nelson can get us only so far. We need to understand the ordinary people who made history at sea. Hugely important modern ideas about race and class were born at sea. But we tend to think that history happens on land and regard the sea as a kind of historical void. This blinds us to important aspects of the world historical process. It's what I call the "terracentric" vision...

Read entire article at National Geographic

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