Many-Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh

In the Many-Headed Hydra by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, the authors convey the historical utilization of classical symbols Hercules and the Many Headed Hydra. The purpose of this symbol was to justify the creation of privateering and the slave trade and based on the exploitation of others, specifically Africans and Native Americans. Using this ideology of classifying another group as the other and embodying the power dynamic in the imagery created by Linebaugh and Rediker, Drake would build both fame and fiscal success of the exploitation of minority groups and the help of organized institutions, such as Queen Elizabeth I, changing the course of history.

Solidifying these concepts that would later be built upon by Drake, Linebaugh and Rediker invoke the personification of the hydra as well as differing tones of severity for the hydra and order when talking about Hercules to illustrate the other in their writing. When describing the conception of the populace in the eyes of monarchs such as George I and William III, Linebaugh and Rediker write them to be “powerful threat[s] to the building of the state, empire, and capitalism … a beast” and “a brood of monsters”(2). Through lumping together the entire populace into one beastly form, Linebaugh and Rediker depict the dehumanizing of the populace by those in control, creating the conception of the other and a system fueled by an us versus they mentality. Additionally, through the social implications of a monarch, or the social representation of order during these time periods, condoning Africans and minorities to be seen on the level of animals, creates a normalizing effect, allowing for others lower down in the system to use it to their advantage. Although Linebaugh and Rediker convey how these symbols do not just stop at the persecution and dehumanization of the hydra, but glorify the institution or Hercules. John Adams, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America, also normalized and thus perpetuated the use of this hydra concept by “proposing the seal of the United States” to be depict “the judgement of Hercules”(2), thus giving Hercules an almost god-like symbol and giving all those outside the state to perform “judgment” on those that they classify as the other in their own society. This is another example of how, such as small classical symbol turned into an international fuel for colonization efforts of Europeans (Linebaugh and Rediker 2).

One such person whose entire career was based on this concept is Francis Drake. Early in his career, Drake wants to convey the difference between Spain and other pirates versus himself, fostering a clear view of himself as Hercules while he continues to commit atrocities against people from other nations and minorities. Drake claimed to be motivated by “gentlemanly revenge” and hoped to “recoup his losses, if not his honor”(2). Taking on the role of the gentleman and that he is driven by honor, implies that his motives are justifiable under morality and gives his image structure. Putting himself aboves other with the social construct of a gentleman, Drake embodies the ideals of hercules, facing enemies on his honorable quests around the globe. One such enemy that brought Drake fame was his conquest of the Spanish Cacafuego or spitfire. Continuing on with the dehumanization aspect of privateering and Drake’s career, the boat was looked at as “slow-moving prey”(47). Drake painted himself and his crew as the noble hunter, taking down an animal in the water that was incapable of protecting itself. Thus he applied himself to be executing a natural part of existence, the hunter and the hunted. Seeing the Spanish, the plunder and slaves he took from the boat as his right to have because nature itself supported him. This relationship mirrored Hercule’s connection to Zeus and the Gods gave him to strength and right to kill monsters such as the many headed hydra. God becomes Queen I in this correlation, who would later knight Drake and endow him with the resources to continue his expeditions. Drake own boat perfectly mirrors this classical structure that he wishes to embody where Drake himself used the strength embedded in him by his monarch to become the aristocratic helm of his ship. Drake “dines as sups on silver dishes” and “takes advice from noone”(47). Through this grand imagery set by one of Drake’s ship mates named Francisco de Zarate, Zarate illustrates the high pedestal created by Drake on his own boat in which he dominates his authority others like he did throughout his career by smuggling slaves, stealing from the Spanish and contributing to the global system of inequality (Lane 2, 47).

While Hercules and Drake were not the only perpetrators of corrupt systems, they have both become one of the most idolized figures throughout the western world. They give others the presence to believe that cruel deeds will be rewarded by society. People wish to replicate their actions because they believe they themselves will then receive lucrative fiscal and social gain in their own political structures and societies, which becomes a dangerous game for humans to play against one another. The moment we see somebody else or a group of people as others or beneath us or the corrupt actions of others idolized, the likelihood becomes significantly higher that we will buy into a racist or morally unethical structures ourselves, perpetuating these patterns to the extreme and with them developing global movements such as the transatlantic slave trade and piracy that will long outlast us all (Lane).


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