Paul Gilroy – Offshore Humanism: Human Rights and Hydrarchy

Modern port cities have always been special places. They were nodal points on the intersecting webs of trade, information and accumulation. At the quayside, land-based sovereignty confronted the unruly force of rivers and oceans as well as the distinctive habits, peregrinations and insubordinate mentalities of those who worked upon the waters. At the other end of the maritime chain, the colonial hydrarchy formed by expanding European interests confronted the anti-imperial resistance of slaves, sailors, pirates and indigenous peoples struggling in pursuit of freedom and autonomy[i]. Those disparate groups were occasionally able to act in concert against the relentless machinery of an emergent capitalism. The struggle to abolish slavery shaped the field of political action and determined how modern movements around rights, citizenship and the franchise could begin to move.

Offshore, the territorial modernity of earthly powers and creatures gave way to the disorderly presence of the sublime seas. Behemoth yielded to Leviathan, and something of that unsettling encounter was conducted back into the cultural and economic core of port cities even when they were located in the heart of Europe’s colonial system. Urban processes rooted in soil were transformed by a marine outlook which specified a different relationship to nature and to the practice of solidarity derived from the radical interdependency experienced by sailors. A different kind of capitalism and a different kind of military power were two notable results of the seafaring adventures that struggled to reconfigure the landlocked city in their own grizzled, salty image. When it was exclusively territorial, government assumed a particular institutional shape and character. As the colonial hydrarchy was consolidated, states acquired oceanic reach and became something else. They were made to accommodate and then to administer the evolving interface between domestic and transnational interests and populations. The contributions of sea-borne mercenaries, privateers and pirates to the formation of modern, national states have been significantly understated by historians of state-making and of modern politics[ii]. Particular patterns of law and war arose from port cities which were targeted as containers of power, repositories of plural, transcultural meaning and conduits for unwelcome contamination. Without yielding to the pressure of ancient myth, we should consider whether contrasting forms of authority, commerce and identity grew out of the social and cultural ecologies associated respectively with land and sea[iii].

Some of the earliest attempts to conceptualise world history on a comparative basis employed the relationship with water to analyse the evolving quality of civilisations. Human societies were thought to have progressed from a fluvial or river-bound stage, through a thalassic phase, which involved movement across and around enclosed seas, and then into a new, more elaborate mode characterised by oceanic travel and long-distance trade, “discovery” and conquest. Even in such crude form, this approach to social and economic development suggests that the port might usefully be recognised as a different kind of city, a far more elaborate and demanding nexus than a simple accumulation of responsible soldier/citizens for whom the principles of modern nationality remained paramount. The maritime metropolis encompassed more than the trading activities that it organised and shaped. People, languages and traditions traveled there to mix and mingle. Culture was pluralised and could assume a dynamic, unanticipated intensity. Class relations became extremely complicated. Racial hierarchies were qualified and tested by the basic fact of interdependence. This environment created unlooked-for intimacies and fostered surprising connections which even now require amendments to the way that modernity has itself been historically interpreted.

The “triangular” trade that linked Europe to Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas within circuits of slaves, sugar, cotton, salt cod, shackles, guns and other manufactured goods provides several instances of this. Sometimes, slave, bonded and free labour worked together in the destructive tempo set by capitalism with its clothes off. The industrial world of the monocrop plantation could not accommodate food production without risking profit. Yet the stress and strain of slash and burn production meant that its workers needed both protein and salt if they were to survive. CLR James emphasised the fundamental point: “even the cloth the slaves wore and the food they ate was imported. The Negroes, therefore, from the start lived a life that was in its essence a modern life”[iv].

The sheer wealth and capital tied up in colonial modernity made its cosmopolitan, tropical cities special in other ways too. Salvador da Bahia (founded 1549) was the original capital of Brasil and for some years was the most powerful city of the Americas. It is still known as the Black Rome because its small, fortified area boasted 166 Catholic churches including the country’s first Cathedral. Among them were sprinkled the Candomble houses where the religion of the Yoruba slaves survived, mutated and grew. Articulated through the colonial baroque, the glory of god bespoke a golden culture of excess. New Orleans, which has not recovered from the disaster of Hurricane Katrina two years ago, was another multi-cultural port city that hosted a unique cultural fusion. Its syncretism was prompted not only by slavery but by successive colonial periods in which the city was attached to different European empires. That pattern, grounded by the trade in slaves, produced Voodoo, Jazz, second line Funk and the coded, oppositional creativity of Congo Square. It made the Crescent City into the cultural capital of the black Atlantic world as well as an important industrial and mercantile centre.

In complex metropolitan environments like that, the repertoire of interpretative practices, which would be systematized in the new science of anthropology, were nothing more than routine, practical, everyday skills. No wonder Immanuel Kant would not leave behind the precious things he learned from the merchants and sailors of his beloved Königsberg. Think too of Sade’s experiments in Marseille or of the Bentham brothers in the port of London. Samuel and Jeremy were energised by the commercial and economic pulse of the river that opened their divided city to the whole world. Peter Linebaugh has shown how their celebrated panopticon emerged from Samuel’s struggle to control the workers in the Royal Dockyard where regular wages had not yet brought order and what would be called theft was a routine and legitimate mode of traditional sustenance[v].

Looking back on his experiences as a quantity of human cargo in the emergent global economy, Equiano spoke of his bitter confinement on ships in the Thames knowing that he would be a free man rather than a slave if he could only reach the riverbank. Later, while he shuttled across the Caribbean struggling to earn enough to buy his freedom, he described another “curious imposition on human nature” which dramatically underscored the antagonistic relationship between the respective orders of land and sea. The obvious symbolism now helps us to imagine some of the consequences of maritime morals leaking into the dryer areas where inter-racial sex and marriage were increasingly being regulated and even criminalised[vi]. “A white man wanted to marry in church a free black woman that had land and slaves at Montserrat: but the clergyman told him it was against the law of the place to marry a white and a black in the church. The man then asked to be married on the water, to which the parson consented, and the two lovers went in one boat, and the parson and clerk in another, and thus the ceremony was performed.”[vii]

The relationship between ports and markets was a direct one. The power and influence enjoyed by Britain’s maritime cities derived directly from the volume and character of their trading. In London, the impact of the colonial on the life of the metropolis was complex and combined direct and indirect dimensions. New forms of finance, insurance and commerce were invented to meet the needs of the slave traders. The West India interest was centrally and deeply involved in the introduction of policing into the congested port. A high percentage of the material which passed through the docks was being stolen and they felt that the new science of police offered important weapons in the struggle for rational political economy, wages and brutal, punitive enforcement of the criminal law. They not only built the massive impregnable structure of the West India dock, they paid for the city’s first police force in order to protect it[viii]. In the process, they established elements of a connection between colony and metropole that narrowly economic accounts of the period have not fully appreciated.

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville captured some of the cosmopolitan characteristics of these places in his casual comparison of the streets of New Bedford, New England’s whaling capital, to those of other ports: “In thoroughfares nigh the docks, any considerable seaport will frequently offer to view the queerest looking non-descripts from foreign parts. Even in Broadway and Chesnut streets, Mediterranean mariners will sometimes jostle with affrighted ladies. Regent street is not unknown to Lascars and Malays; and at Bombay, in the Apollo Green, live Yankees have often scared the natives”[ix]. The ironic reversal in that final sentence not only affirms the author’s cosmopolitanism. It reveals his grasp of the value of what can be called a seafarer’s estrangement from the assumptions underpinning their own culture. For Melville, that distance was essential in distinguishing significant human differences from trivial, minor ones.

Ishmael’s epic planetary tale confirmed Equiano’s original insight, namely that the law of the sea was not the law of the land. Writing as a prisoner awaiting deportation from Ellis Island in New York harbour, CLR James, now an incarcerated communist, pointed out that developments onboard the Pequod were significantly ahead of those found onshore. They anticipated features of territorial sociality which would not become fully visible for sometime to come. For James, Melville’s relationship to the sea and its global commerce enabled him to see the future of capitalism more clearly than any other writer of that time. The sea, and the distinctive habits it inculcated into ports and, most importantly, into the heteroglot, seafaring proletariat, elevated Melville’s insights to the greatest critical significance:

“Melville is not the only representative writer of industrial civilization. He is the only one there is. In his great book the division and antagonisms and madnesses of an outworn civilization are mercilessly dissected and cast aside. Nature, technology, the community of men, science and knowledge, literature and ideas are fused into a new humanism, opening a vast expansion of human capacity and human achievement. Moby Dick will either be universally burnt or be universally known in every language as the first comprehensive statement in literature of the conditions and perspectives for the survival of Western Civilization.”[x]

Today, pondering James’ affirmation of that new humanism directs us back to some old, eighteenth century questions that can now serve as foundations for another cosmo-political enterprise. “Am I not a man and a brother?”, “Am I not a woman and a sister?”. These inquiries were inscribed by Josiah Wedgewood on his porcelain medallions and painted inside sugar bowls for some of Europe’s first ethical consumers. The enduring power of those questions reveals how the struggle against the institution of slavery shaped the modern world’s conceptions of the human. The subversive charge of that abolitionist rhetoric can foster an appreciation of how European thought was moved past its comfortable relationship with a pernicious dualism in which whiteness was associated with the mind while blackness was identified with the dubious prize of the body.

As well as fixing the mechanisms whereby a common, indivisible humanity might be recognised, the struggle against racial slavery tested the idea of rights, opposed the racial boundaries placed around citizenship and identified limits to capitalism’s moral economy. In turn, those battles generated a huge conflict with the idea of racial hierarchy. A wedge was driven between liberty and equality on one side and the ideal of national fraternity on the other, a conflict that continues around us. Port cities provided some of the first stages upon which that battle was elaborated.

The African American savant, W.E.B. DuBois hoped that the history of racial slavery and its overthrow would give our time a conception of democratic freedom which, though different, was as profound, complex and compelling as anything that emerged from Athens and Jerusalem, from Sparta or Prussia. Salvador, Baltimore, New Orleans, Havana, New York, Kingston, London and Port Au Prince were some of the special places in which that distinctive idea of freedom was incubated and then propagated.

The emancipatory projects harboured in those port cities would eventually be despatched worldwide. They were carried along the routes of modern trading activity. Gradually, they became a self-conscious culture and were borne across the planet by other, newer vectors: the technologies, texts, sounds and personnel of the widening Black Atlantic. Often, this counterculture of modernity acquired a musical voice that took communication beyond what words could convey and, in doing so, raised new philosophical and aesthetic problems. A specific reaction to institutionalised unfreedom created and disseminated a culture of freedom and a universal language of sufferation that have endured into the twenty-first century.

That neglected history offers a deeper and richer commentary on the effects of alienation than anything else we have. It is a culture of freedom articulated from deep within the experience of objecthood – of being a thing rather than a person, locked away from literacy on the point of death, in a place where cognition – thinking – is not a special door to doubt, method and being but a shortcut into the vulnerability of non-being. This history declares: I think, therefore I am not. It can furnish us with interpretative and ethical resources which we can use to orient ourselves now that the human in the idea of human rights, stands in urgent need of moral elaboration. If humanity is to become plausible again it will need to be endowed with a new content easily distinguishable from the vapid, race-friendly fillings it was given by Cold War liberalism and more recently by belligerent humanitarianism. The vernacular, cosmopolitan traditions which defined the social life of port cities are among the best places to begin that urgent salvage operation.

== Essay by Paul Gilroy, commissioned for Port City, published by Arnolfini 2007, edited by Tom Trevor ISBN 978 0 907738 87 7 ==

[i] Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Redicker The Many-Headed Hydra Beacon Press, 2000.

[ii] Janice Thomson Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns Princeton University Press, 1994.

[iii] Carl Schmitt Land and Sea Plutarch Press, (1954) 1997.

[iv] CLR James The Black Jacobins Alison and Busby, 1980, p. 392.

[v] Peter Linebaugh The London Hanged Penguin books, 1991.

[vi] Winthrop D. Jordan White Over Black Norton, 1977, pp.139-145.

[vii] Olaudah Equiano The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings Penguin p.119.

[viii] Leon Radzinowicz A History Of English Criminal Law Vol.2 chap 12, Stevens and Son, 1956.

[ix] Herman Melville Moby Dick Penguin, p. 125.

[x] CLR James Mariners Renegades and Castaways Bewick Editions, p.105


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s