What if C.L.R. James Had Met E.P. Thompson in 1792?
from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by Peter Linebaugh
We can't hope to know what they would have said to each other, for they saw such different things. Yet, for us, it is impossible to even walk in that decade without the legs of Thompson and James. We can ask where they might have met and who might have introduced them. Let us compare the openings of The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938) to see if they can help answer these questions.1
James opens his book with Christopher Columbus praising God and inquiring for gold and with Liverpool slavers scouring the Guinea coast. Within a few pages James has spanned three centuries from 1492 to 1792, introduced us to massacre, genocide, and what Malcolm X called "the world's most monstrous crime," crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic to take us to three continents before leaving us in San Domingo, the revolutionary apex of that famous triangle whose base angles were formed by England (capital) and Africa (labor). The sugar and tobacco circuits provided capitalist unity to the triangle, a unity requiring the maximum distance between the two largest concentrations of labor — on one side of the ocean the African masses on the plantations ("they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time"), and on the other side, the working class of "England's green and pleasant land." Despite capital's fantasies, the two sides of the ocean had to be joined: "mariners, renegades, and castaways," the first true workers of the world, effected this miracle by carrying the labors (and experience!) of one to the other, posing the possibility of a working class unity to the triangle. James, like Thompson, does not see labor as an appendage or aspect of capital: on the contrary, he shows how the Voodoo drums of August 1791 in sounding revolt sent a message of liberty to the powers of Europe stating the unequivocal and independent existence of the Afro- American working people.
In 1792, then, it would have been an Afro-American and an ex-slave who introduced James to Thompson. But how would an Englishman have met such a man?
Perhaps in the warm, smoke-filled room of "The Bell" off the Strand where Thompson's book opens in January 1792. We find ourselves seated with pipes and porter in the congenial company of Thomas Hardy, shoemaker and student of the American revolution, with some of his colleagues, artisans and "free-born Britons" all. A miniature scene perhaps when compared to Atlantic vistas, and one in which apparently just another discussion of dues, membership, and rules is taking place (the London Corresponding Society is being formed); however, being in England we must listen carefully. Thompson teaches our ear patience as he takes us closer to the accents and undertones of the talk: we hear 17th century Dissent and 18th century constitutional talk. By analyzing a single inflection from the Putney debates — when the Levellers strode on the world stage — Thompson has us poised between two epochs in the history of English and world democracy. If a curse blasts our ear, he shows that this is energy from the London street whence in the previous two years William Blake made a new kind of poetry. Sometimes when these sober voices grow louder than usual, we hear first the world-cracking phrases of Tom Paine.
We can remark now, after the publication of The Making; how English is the scene — the starting up of a new society and the careful attention to the layers of language, but in 1792, at the birth of the first strictly working class political organization, these were momentous tidings.
No doubt about it, Thompson and James would have met at a political meeting in a London pub, and the question is not how an Englishman would have met an Afro-American but the other way around.
The two themes, the surge to freedom of the Afro-American slaves and the making of the English working class, can no longer be separated as part of the fragmentation of nations or of labor powers that a capitalist unity requires. Let us look at six scenes from the life of Olaudah Equiano, in whom the themes converge. Slave, mariner, barber, castaway, and founder of what has been called "proto-Pan- Africanism," he's the boomerang of the triangle trade.2
First: Education and the Sea. In 1761 we join Equiano aboard the Aetna. He is sixteen and already an experienced man. In the Bight of Benin he'd seen a slaver's captain flog an English sailor to death. He'd seen a Highlander scalp an Indian chief at the siege of Louisburg, and as a powder monkey 'tween decks he'd faced death and the French fleet off the coast of Gibraltar. Historians today might find aboard the Aetna a "total institution" like the prison or the factory, and there are similarities, but looking at it with the eyes of Melville or Traven, it will appear not quite so "total." Thanks to Daniel Queen, his messmate, Equiano learns not only to read and write, but to shave and dress hair and to read the Bible. They stay up all night under the stars: Daniel Queen expounding the Bible and Equiano making succinct and materialist observations comparing the "tribes of Jaweh" with his African experiences, a habit of comparative ethnography that will never leave him. How did Queen expound the Bible, we wonder? What else from the English Revolution did he teach besides Milton?
Second: The Wage and the Methodists. Five years later we see Equiano in Philadelphia, where he sells four barrels of pork to the Quakers, "a very honest discrete sort of People." Class relations in 18th century England were characterized by the incomplete imposition of the money-form, which is to say, that workmen took their income in the form of a customarily regulated cut in the product. In the West Indies trade this free freightage or mariner's portage was simply called the crew's "Privilledge" or "Benefitt," and slaves evidently possessed it too. Having sold his pork he went to Church. Passing a Quaker meeting house where a tall woman was speaking, he stopped and stared. Would this have been Rebecca Jones, the Quaker evangelical and ardent abolitionist?3 He asked what she was preaching but none would say. It is true that in 1761 the Philadelphia Friends had voted to prohibit slavery among themselves, but even five years later there was a lot of tension on that score. Later that morning he saw a church so crowded that people had mounted ladders to peer in the windows. He squeezed in and saw George White-ield, the great Methodist who went among "Harlots, Publicans, and Thieves." He heard him preach and saw him sweat ever as much as Equiano did "in slavery on Montserrat beach." The wage-form not yet possessing its purely capitalist character, the tense early development of Quaker abolitionism, the "City of Brotherly Love," the mass power of the Great Awakening and the trans-Atlantic brotherhood of the Methodists: Equiano is present at the gestation of great events.
Third: "Liberty" and a General Strike. In the winter of 1767-1768 Equiano is in London cutting hair and shaving beards in Coventry Court, Haymarket. At night he takes arithmetic lessons and learns the French horn from one of his neighbors. It is a very hard winter. In January the weavers go on strike (silk cloth is the most important industry after the port). Many thousands of them march across London with drums and banners, chanting "Wilkes & Liberty" to petition the King. Certainly, Equiano would have heard them, for their route passed Pall Mall. And of course in a Westminster barber shop he would have taken part in the libertarian talk of Wilkes, the free press, general warrants, and Parliamentary privilege. In these years Granville Sharp was formulating his anti-slavery views. Who trimmed his beard? Equiano cannot live on his wages, so in May he ships out to Smyrna, but he has to wait for the ships to sail because the sailors and coal-heavers have shut the port in a general strike which even Admiralty frigates cannot break. While waiting he would have heard about "The Massacre of St. George's Fields," where eleven people were slain protesting Wilkes' imprisonment, and he may have seen the destruction by five hundred sawyers of the first steam-powered saw mill. Did he participate in these events? What would he have made of them?
Fourth: Before the Blues. In December 1771 we find Equiano under the hot Jamaican sun. Four and five years earlier there had been large slave revolts and the Jamaican planter class had trembled. So here for the second time (Wilkes' London was the first), he'll encounter the unmistakable experience of the power of oppressed masses in motion. It's here where he confronts the contradictions of slave rule: he sees "negroes whose business it is to flog slaves." This he had not seen. And he would have heard tales of the maroons. On Sundays Equiano joined African assemblies "at a large commodious place called the Spring Path. Here each different nation of Africa meet and dance after the manner of their own country." What a triumph the sight and sound of a French horn would have made! He took or found music wherever he went: once cast away in New Providence (Bahamas) he passed the happiest time of his life with some free Black people and "the melodious sound of the catguts under the lime and lemon trees." Amid the trans- Atlantic Babel of tongues, music was a passport, a declaration and an invitation. Among the deceits and equivocations made possible even by Milton's tongue, music offered a surer guide. In Naples or Turkey, in Georgia or Nicaragua, in London or Kingston he sought out the rhythms and melodies of the people, compared them to those of his Nigerian childhood, and found another vocabulary of freedom. Music brought people together, in Kingston, for example, an accomplishment feared by rulers everywhere, and justly so. What else did the music do? Did it tell stories of "Tackey's Rebellion"? What promises did it bode, what vows seal?
Fifth: 1787 — Annus Mirabilus of Abolitionism. Back in London, most likely in St. James's with the independent electors of Westminster, with access to the Nonconformist churches and proximity to the Black ghetto — "St. Giles's blackbirds" — Equiano divides the leadership of London's Black population (between 4% and 6% of the population) with Ottobah Cugoano: indeed their work for abolition in 1786 and 1787 can be compared in historic importance to the Pan-Africanist work conducted in those same London streets by C. L. R. James and George Padmore exactly 150 years later.4 How well Cugoano mastered the English mind: as the first African to call for the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves and "reasonable wages" for the freedmen, he expressed his arguments in the thunderous terms of the Old Testament and the balanced moneychanging terms of Adam Smith. Words alone do not move masses of people, nor do they sail ships. Equiano, the man of action, intelligence, and astonishing experience, at the age of 42 makes his move: He gets himself appointed Commissary for Stores for the Black Poor going to Sierra Leone. This, the first back-to-Africa movement, brought to completion the boomerang of the triangular trade, but its ambiguities ("Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter," Cugoano wrote) and corruptions led to Equiano's dismissal.
Sixth: Black and White. After this personal defeat (some 411 men and two score prostitutes arrived in Freetown — another story), Equiano picked up the pen and wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative (1789), which besides showing an exact and sympathetic understanding of his Nonconformist audience and in addition to being, like the autobiographies of Douglass, Nkrumah, or Malcolm X, a great testament of human liberation, it took Equiano onto a new organizing path: it was a means of travel and a way of opening doors. Between 1790 and 1792 he tramped up and down the British Isles (blazing a trail Frederick Douglass would follow fifty years later) selling his book and helping to form abolition committees in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Who else but a man of the world could have moved so easily among these four kingdoms? Conversant with Quaker and Dissenting networks, he was welcomed into middle class reform groups. He's in Manchester as its Constitutional Society is formed. In Sheffield he departs just before the Society of Constitutional Information is founded. Besides these entrees, Equiano has the sailor's passport into working class settings, a story only hinted at in the six editions already published of his book. He'd suffered an accident in a Shropshire coalmine. He's in Sheffield in August 1790 at the height of a furious grinders' strike against the scissor smiths: this is the city which will have the most militant and least ambiguously plebian Corresponding Society. He did odd jobs in London, and perhaps took to trimming hair and shaving beards in Coventry Court again. If so, he would have been only around t le corner from Thomas Hardy's place where Thompson begins his story of the making of the English working class.
Two years ago in 1979 at Dr. George Rawick's seminar at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, Professor James Walvin of the University of York (England), who knows as much about the history of Black people in England as anyone, stated that Olaudah Equiano and Thomas Hardy had indeed met, that they knew each other and had probably worked together back in 1792.
Also in 1792, at the news of yet another of Toussaint's victories, one of his defeated generals said, "This man makes an opening everywhere," and that is how he got the name of "L'Ouverture." The same can be said of Thompson and James. One opened to view the stamina and creativity of the English working class at the moment of industrialization, rescuing it from "the enormous condescension of posterity." The other opened up continents and races to the historian's gaze, while rebuking the racism of both capitalist and Comintern orthodoxies. Just as one was written within earshot of "the booming of Franco's heavy artillery [and] the rattle of Stalin's firing squads," so in the other the echo still sounds in the ear of Khrushchev's tanks rumbling across Freedom and Kossuth bridges into the streets of Budapest. The Pan-Africanist and the New Leftist rejected the academic philosophy of history which was compulsively transfixed by the "triumph of the capitalist mode of production" and which recklessly sought "the laws of development" with an Ahab-like mania. Burning for the future and searching for a fulcrum that was neither Stalinist nor liberal, they both returned to the 1790's, the last great worldwide crisis, to analyze the movement of the workers of the world. Neither of them, as far as I know, saw Equiano sitting in the back of the room at "The Bell," ready to pass his experience on: "Brother Thompson, may I present Brother James?"
Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Rochester.
Footnotes1. Besides these two books my essay relies on C. L. R. James, Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In (New York, 1953).[return to text]
2. There are many editions of Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African and these I have not, unfortunately, been able to compare. I have had to rely on two abridged editions, Paul Edwards (ed.), Equiano's Travels (New York, 1967), and Francis D. Adams and Barry Sanders, Three Black Writers in Eighteenth Century England (Belmont, California, 1971).[return to text]
3. When there is evidence that former slaves like Cugoano and Equiano actually had to goad early abolitionists to activity sometimes, it is astonishing to me that there are not even references to them in David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823 (Ithaca, New York, 1975).[return to text]
4. James Walvin, The Black Presence: A Documentary History of the Negro in England, 1555-1860 (New York, 1971) has been helpful, and the early chapters especially of Imanuel Geiss, The Pan-African Movement: A History of Pan-Africanism in America, Europe and Africa, translated by Ann Keep (New York, 1974), have been indispensable.[return to text]