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The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books, 2014

empireofnecessityWhen Captain Amasa Delano’s crew of the Perseverance spotted the Tyral near an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile in 1805, Delano, an American, imagined the ship might be in distress and instructed his men to gather some water and food and prepare a smaller boat to go out and meet the drifting vessel, hoping to receive compensation for his services. Once aboard, Delano listened to Captain Benito Cerreño’s story of his slave ship’s encounter with a devastating storm that took the lives of many of his crew. Delano proceeded to stay on the Tyral for almost nine hours, assisting Cerreño and those on board. Though at times Delano was puzzled and even disturbed by the lack of restraint placed on the slaves, he never doubted that the Captain was in control of his ship. At times, he even admired the trust Cerreño had in his servant Babo. In reality, the slaves had revolted, killed off members of the crew, and were forcing Cerreño to return them to Africa. It was not until Delano returned to his own vessel – when the beleaguered captain jumped from the Tyral onto the Perseverance and began to explain – that reality of what had happened began to reveal itself to him.

The incident served for the basis of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, which tells the story through a third-person account that remains closely attached to Delano’s mind as he repeatedly misinterpret the actions of the fictional Cereno and the rebelling slaves. Greg Grandin, an NYU professor and historian of Central and South America, also uses the story to frame The Empire of Necessity, his detailed and insightful account into the complex set of social, political, and economic relationships that connected the Atlantic through the slave trade. In both accounts—fictional and historical—the American captain of the sealing ship repeatedly fails to register the hints dropped by Cerreño and the provocations of the rebel slaves’ leader Mori and his Spanish-speaking son Babo (compressed into one character in Melville’s story). The farce at sea amounted to what Grandin calls “a one-act, nine hours, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relation performed by a group of desperate, starving, and thirsty men and women.” Delano’s inability to visualize reality results from what Nicholas Mirzoeff has called a “Complex of Visuality.” In his book The Right to Look (2011), Mirzoeff describes visuality as an organizing principle formed by a set of relations combining information, insight, imagination into an arrangement of both physical and psychic space. Visuality as a practice aims to organize, classify and control, assert social organizations, and manifests itself as right and aesthetic.

If Mirzoeff’s work sounds too theoretical, Grandin’s Empire of Necessity is a well-paced, kaleidoscopic collection of historical narratives that carefully trace those social and economic connections that were operating during the period of the Atlantic slave trade. By situating his work in line with Edmund Mogan’s American Slavery, American Freedom (1975), Grandin explores the “central paradox” of the Age of Liberty:

it was also the Age of Slavery. Morgan was writing specifically about colonial Virginia, but the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South, the Atlantic and to the Pacific, as the history leading up to and including the events on the Tyral reveals. What was true for Richmond was no less so for Buenos Aires and Lima—that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property.

Benito CerenoAs colonial territories were able to produce more goods for Europe through the use of slaves—Grandin explains the minute operations of the saladeros in Argentina—they became more empowered to make claims about their own inherent rights. Empire of Necessity is best at showing just how interrelated commerce and politics were. For instance, Grandin details how with each perceived threat to imperial power, Spain was quick to grant more liberty to its colonies in hopes of appeasement. When the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, Spain opened its Cuban ports for trade with North America. More restrictions were lifted on the colonies aligning with the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the beheading of Louis XVI, and Haiti’s independence in 1804, when Spain allowed its colonial subjects to sail their own ships to Africa and “to buy blacks wherever they may be found.” From the violence of the seal fur trade to the social hierarchies of the crew, Grandin depicts seafaring in the Atlantic slave trade as both mirror and microcosm of the revolutionary fervor on both sides of the ocean. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, a Jacobin privateer found profit in overtaking English ships from Liverpool, many of which actively fought republicanism, and selling the cargo for himself. Mordeille, captain of the Hope, considered himself to be something of a revolutionary, insisting that his men call him Citizen instead of Captain. But when he overtook the Neptune, a British slaver, he only saw the profit in selling the captive slaves in South America, giving Grandin a succinct image for the irony of the era:

As they made ready to sail across the Atlantic, the Hope and the Neptune, were floating contradictions of the Age of Revolution. On board one ship were enslaved Africans understood to be property, which meant that according to interpretations of natural-law liberalism they could be bought, sold, and traded as cargo. On board the other, a multihued crew lived the French Revolution’s promise of liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

In the Pacific, far off the coast of Chile around Más Afuera, a group of sailors who were often flogged and berated by their captain drafted a set of grievances and demands modeled on the Declaration of Independence; however, the main organizer pointed out that the one colored slave on the ship was excluded from the proceedings.

Empire of Necessity is a remarkable intervention of narrative-construction in the realm of academic scholarship. Grandin moves quickly without tedious explanation between decades and continents. Side characters such as Moulton, an American Revolution veteran who led the crew who almost mutinied off of Más Afuera and went on to take part in establishing a commune among “alone men” on an island in the South Seas, frequently overtake the narrative. Grandin’s account of the saladeros and the end of Mordeille’s life as a slaver are both reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell.” Then, without so much as a wink, Borges makes an appearance in Grandin’s narrative to recount his grandmother’s story of how one of the richer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires is built on former slave auction blocks. The graphic accounts of the skin and fur trades, while not directly following the principle story lines, are meant to come back and project onto the violence done to slaves. There is a lengthy interlude that describes the passage slaves were taken across the continent of South America. The chapter strays from Grandin’s stories of sea adventures, but allows him to paint the history of slavery into the landscape they traveled.

AmericanSlaveryAmericanFreedomThe structure reflects the complex world of the Atlantic slave trade and the diverse practices and power structures in place to make slavery seem like a legitimate enterprise in a world that was increasingly being overturned by revolutions in the name of freedom. Religion seeps into the story from the Protestant sermons Delano listened to in New England to the Muslim-background of many of the enslaved rebels aboard the Tyral. The day of their revolt, he points out, was the Muslim holiday Laylat-al-Qadr, the Night of Power. While American preachers often denounced slavery as a practice, the principles they heralded of Enlightenment rationality and a strong sense of duty and order often underpinned the self-justifications of slave holders and dealers. Though many of the revolutionary leaders saw themselves as stepping out of the snares of organized religion, they often saw their actions as divinely right, and these same notions were used to argue the continuation of slavery in the Age of Liberty. One aspect Grandin perhaps does not pay enough attention to is the rise of imperial naturalists and scientist who set out to classify and organize the world. Mirzoeff is particularly useful here, showing how the visual practices of classification resemble many of the ordering principles used in the slave trade, down to the tabulated bureaucratic forms used to manage slaves as property.

In Empire of Necessity, Delano is no more than a mid-level entrepreneur, constantly in debt or scheming to elude it. He is no monomaniacal Ahab, but his role may be far worse according to Grandin:

His power is based not on the demagogic pull of charisma but on the everyday pressures involved in controlling labor and converting diminishing natural resources into marketable items. Caught in the pincers of supply and demand and trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with his own crew on the brink of mutiny because there are no seals left to kill and no money to be made, Delano rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale but of black rebels. Their slide into barbarism… happens not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them.

As a result, Delano’s memoirs reflect the follies of the Slavery complex.

A Narrative of Voyages and Travels reads less like an encyclopedia of world knowledge than like a long catalog of botches, fiascos, and debacles testifying to the impossibility of knowledge, or at least the impossibility of doing anything with knowledge once it is collected.

For Melville, Delano’s tale of his own deception ends with his disillusionment and the ensuing violence he unleashed on the rebel slaves after overcoming the fleeing Tyral. Grandin, who meditates on the violence in more detail (it could be the fourth concept in the book’s subtitle), follows the story further to the legal aftermath of the slave ship uprising. The surviving slaves were given some form of legal defense, in which their counselor argued their cause by claiming all individuals were free and had the right to revolt against an oppressive regime of power. Juan Matínez de Rozas, a royal advocate, was unconvinced, and the rebels were all hanged. Some of their heads were displayed on spikes in the center of Concepción. Yet, Rozas would later become a political leader of South America’s revolts from Spain.

The defense of the Tyral rebels was later used by John Quincy Adams to gain a victory for the black slaves aboard the Amistad. But after Adams’ victory, conditions only got worse for slaves in the United States as laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act were passed. Empire of Necessity is a counterhistory to American praise of the Amistad trial: “The Tyral, or as Melville named the ship, the San Dominick, not the Amistad, was America’s metaphor.” In the book, Grandin refrains from drawing modern-day parallels, but in several online articles supporting its release he makes clear just how much he expects readers to see both Melville’s story and Delano’s real-life account as tales of deception we are still living. From showing how conservative perceptions of President Obama render him a modern-day Babo, to proclaiming that “morally serious” journalists, politicians, and managers are no better than Delano in his attempt to faithfully obey the dictates of his knowledge of duty, Grandin has unabashedly situated his scholarship as to be politically relevant today.

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Jacob Spears is a writer from Pittsburgh, Pa. whose work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and [PANK] Magazine. He received his MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.