How did the red flag become the symbol of the global labor movement?

As historian Niklas Frykman argues, its origins trace back to mutinies at sea and maritime communities that were founded on a radical egalitarian spirit and an insistence on participatory democracy.

In this virtual conversation, historian Niklas Frykman, author of The Bloody Flag: Mutiny in the Age of Atlantic Revolution, joined UC Press Editorial Director, Kim Robinson, to discuss what motivated him to write the book and why maritime communities are just as relevant in today’s era of global capitalism.

As Frykman explains, he began studying this topic because of an early interest in pirates, a sense of romance for the seas, and an awareness of issues of nationalism from growing up in Germany. But as he dug into these tales of mutiny, he found a more nuanced story about empire, revolution, politics, history, and culture.

Ships in the era of Atlantic revolution were often viewed as extensions of a particular country or empire. But these spaces were actually much more complex, as cosmopolitan worlds operating outside borders and often influenced by a distinct maritime culture that had a long history of political radicalism.

“Because of that long history of international radicalism and because we’re so dependent on maritime networks, we ought to pay a lot more attention to what was happening in these communities.”

Niklas Frykman

Unlike the approaches taken by current literature on mutinies, Frykman examines an extensive range of sources, in multiple languages, to bring to light connections between many nations and name the sea as an “extranational space.”

The Bloody Flag is a history, but Frykman’s focus on maritime communities is just as relevant today, especially considering that around 90 percent of all commodities traded globally have spent considerable time at sea. Additionally, the politics of these seafaring communities offer interesting examples of communitarian social organization and class consciousness. As Frykman says, they provide an important reminder that we should pay more attention and honor to indigenous, local radicalisms.

Read more about Niklas Frykman’s book, The Bloody Flag.