Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994
Copyright © 1994 Socialist Review.
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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Lenin once said, “The proletariat is the class which is engaged in the production of material values in large scale capitalist industry. Since large scale capitalist industry has been destroyed, since the factories are at a standstill, the proletariat has disappeared.”
This was in 1921 and was a good rough approximation for Russia at that time and a necessary one, but it was never true for capitalism generally; not in the past, not now, not ever.
The proletariat in Marx’s sense, those who lack property in the means of production and are compelled to sell their labour power in order to live, have always included very substantial numbers who never worked in a factory.
This book, subtitled Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo American Maritime World, 1700–1750 is about a very important section of them. Their labour, and the surplus value extracted from it, made a large contribution to that “primitive accumulation” which made first British and then world capitalism possible. The book is limited both in time and in space, no doubt because it originated as a doctoral thesis. It is none the less valuable, provided that it is remembered that it covers a limited area. It does not discuss the immensely important traffic with Asia and South America, for example, and treats lightly the then very important Dutch, French and other mercantile operations and the repeated wars for profit between the mercantile powers throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
But, given its limits, the book is full of meat. The hellish conditions under which seamen worked, the brutal rule of captains and officers, the lousy and often scanty food, scurvy, dysentery, the poverty wages, often deducted and even withheld on various pretexts, is all graphically described. So too are the terrors of the sea in an epoch before steam, when wind and weather could and often did sink perhaps one vessel in five. “The seaman’s dilemma went beyond the seemingly boundless forces of nature he confronted. The tar was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one side stood his captain, who was backed by the merchant and royal official, and who held near dictatorial powers that served a capitalist system rapidly covering the globe; on the other side stood the relentlessly dangerous natural world.”
Of course the seamen fought back. That is a main theme of this book.
But two points of criticism are necessary. First, the contrast between the merchant service and the allegedly superior conditions in the regular naval service. It is a well known fact that the British navy, in this period and for long after, was recruited in large part by the press gang, that is, by kidnapping, and that most famous of British admirals, Nelson, remarked that naval discipline was maintained “by rum, sodomy and the lash”.
Second, the alleged “freedom” of seamen on private vessels seems a little overdone. Under such captains as L’Onnais and Teach (“Blackbeard”) even Captain Bligh might seem a better bet. And a good proportion of pirates ended up on the gallows.
Still, this is an interesting and informative piece of work and well worth reading.
Last updated on 23 April 2017