Verslag: Stories of violence, stories of mobility, stories of resistance
Runaway slaves heading north in 19th-century United States. Aymara peasants hiding away from their villages to avoid forced labor in the Potosí silver mines, in 17th-century Bolivia. A motley group of fugitives of different origins going to trial in the Dutch VOC-settlement of Galle, in the late 18th century. Convict workers avoiding their duties in Van Diemen’s Land, Australia, in the early 19th century…
That these seemingly unconnected cases have much more in common than what at first sight might seem was one of the main lessons of the Conference “Runaways: Desertion and Mobility in Global Labor History, c. 1650-1850”, co-hosted by the International Institute of Social History and the University of Pittsburgh, and held at the IISH, in Amsterdam, last week. More than twenty papers, presented by scholars coming from different continents, addressed thrilling stories of desertions, runaways and mutinies, in a broad variety of landscapes, labor situations and historical periods. Several of them addressed episodes of Dutch history, such as the collective action of different groups of workers in VOC settlements, and military desertion in Dutch ships in the late 18th-century “revolutionary Atlantic”. Along six sessions, presentations dealt with different cases of desertions and runaways, while at the same time the intense discussion meetings contributed to address a certain number of common topics and problems that all these episodes had in common.
As Leo Lucassen pointed out in his opening lecture, runaways and desertions represent a bridge between labor and migration history, two topics that form the core of the IISH research programme. Both fields, however, have usually tended to pay less attention to fugitives and runaways in pre-capitalist periods, as they focused on the histories of low skilled, waged and free workers. This conference, he argued, helps to broaden this perspective, by assessing the fates of indentured servants, salves, temporal movements, soldiers, or sailors.
Marcus Rediker, in turn, posed the question about the political conjuncture of the conference, organized in the same year in which the “refugee crisis” brought to public attention the situation of thousands of people forced to escape and move across borders to look for a better future somewhere else. He pointed out that the “will to move” has historically been an expression of class struggle. Rediker went on to argue that in the period 1650-1850, the mobility of people played a key role for the formation of a capitalist economy, while, at the same time, opened up an array of possibilities for collective action.
Indeed, the conference assessed a broad variety of specific cases that contributed to tell the stories of millions of people whose labor was mobilized and redeployed —and at the same time the fascinating narratives of their resistance to this process. If capitalism is usually associated with “free labor” and “freedom of movement”, this conference reminded that the forging of the capitalist mode of production was inextricably linked to what Karl Marx called the period of “primitive accumulation”, where capital came into the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
At the same time, the conference also contributed to put into question the idea of runaways and desertions as acts of individual nature. With their thorough assessment of seemingly very different episodes in geographical and chronological terms, the papers depicted a common history of collective action and resistance. In so doing, the conference showed the differences but also the strong links that these episodes of modern history have with the history of struggles in contemporary capitalist societies.