No one writes like Peter Linebaugh. Perhaps no one would dare to write like Linebaugh, a singular quality that will be found on virtually every page of his 2019 volume Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard.
This is a book very much in the tradition of Linebaugh’s earlier 2003 volume, The London Hanged, a saga of the lower classes as modern history emerges in all of its ugly, imperial glory. It is also, in a more distant sense, very much a book written in the tradition of E.P. Thompson, one of the greatest British peace movement leaders and historians of the English language. Like Thompson, Linebaugh writes history as he would a highly unusual novel.
In Red Round Globe Hot Burning, we move across continents and back and forth in time, guided through the life of historical figure Edward Marcus Despard.
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Born in rural Ireland in 1751, Despard grew up alongside the spread of commercial agriculture as it wiped out common space and access to resources. This process advanced much more slowly in Ireland than in most of England, but advance it did. This was the long historic moment of the “enclosures” that philosopher Karl Marx described with such care and such analytical effect in Capital.
We learn that Despard’s Protestant Anglo-Irish community had two contrasting narratives of Irish history: either that the British brought “proper civilization,” or they destroyed Gaelic civilization. The first view tended toward rationalism, epitomized in the Scotsman David Hume, while the second left room for poets, Catholics of all kinds and ordinary folk who insisted that leprechauns were part of their lives.
Linebaugh’s chapters are short, and they contain so many quotations from historical sources, including poetry, that the determined reader may well regard these as an education in itself — not of one subject, but of many related to modernization and its discontents.
Despard heads for the “New World” as a British soldier in 1780, specifically to combat the revolutionary rebels — the forces of a burgeoning empire in revolt against an old one. He soon finds himself in Jamaica and there, he becomes an engineer, supervising assorted projects for the English sub-empire in the Caribbean.
There, he acquires a slave, Kate or Catherine, who would become his wife and, in many ways, his inspiration. To hold her dear was to understand the vast crime of slavery.
This is also the era of the slave uprising recorded so memorably by historian C.L.R. James and so memorable to Linebaugh himself. We learn that sugar cultivation is being overtaken by cotton production, and in that development is to be the rise of a young United States. Cotton meant slaves, and it almost meant stripping the woodlands across a vast region, not to mention the removal and extermination of the Native residents.
“The consciousness of race and class developed relation to the mass and movement of the human race,” opens Chapter 19, and this is a theme that experienced readers of Linebaugh were surely waiting to be made explicit. Despard and Kate, who he has married as they crossed the Atlantic for England, are soon to join continental rebels.
These were indeed revolutionary times as groups of English, Scottish and Irish people combined open sympathy for the French Revolution with public resentment at new demands made upon the population to fund the counter-revolution. Widespread uprising rattled the authorities.
It is no surprise to see Linebaugh leaving the Despards behind for several chapters, as we enter upon an extended discussion of lower-class rebellion, drawing upon the influences of assorted rebels, even pirates, carrying on the traditions of the Levellers and the escape of Caribbean slaves from their owners.
This theme leads squarely to the arrest of Despard himself in 1802 for conspiracy to make a revolution. Like many conspiracies, it was exposed by informers — the early version of the security state. Despard and several of his fellow conspirators were hanged for their trouble in 1803.
Here, in the desperate if doomed struggle, we see echoes of the Atlantic or trans-Atlantic themes of the 2000 book, The Many-Headed Hydra, that Linebaugh wrote with Marcus Rediker. We also glimpse the great Haitian slave rebellion of the 1790s reflected in revolutionary France, the possibilities of a cross-racial movement alive for a moment recorded in the pages of historian C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins. A world of revolution was inevitably global and crossed racial lines, as the 20th century would show more clearly.
The imprisoned Despard retained a certain recognition for his past status as a military colonel. His friends could visit him and record their responses, and openly support Kate’s urgent appeals to spare his life, or at least better his dreadful conditions of imprisonment.
Deeply fearing Irish rebellion — as they conceived the real danger of his crime — the authorities declined even to let her, a Black woman, enter his miserable, cold and filthy cell. She organized effectively, nevertheless, from letter campaigns to the highest authorities, to communications with the wives of fellow conspirators, seeking to spare her husband from the hangman’s noose. Kate’s appeals for her husband’s life can be seen as part of a great racial justice struggle, seeking nothing less than the abolition of slavery.
While it is nearly impossible to convey the flow of subjects embodied in Red Round Globe Hot Burning, the sweep of interracial history, the place of seemingly ordinary people in challenging the very basis of class society, will be understood better by those reading this worthy volume.