“Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution.” Photograph by Bojan Brecelj/Corbis (19th-century Zanzibar)
A Vengeful Fury
Greg Grandin’s ‘Empire of Necessity’
By ANDREW DELBANCOJAN. 10, 2014
Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 19th, more than 12 million human beings were shipped against their will from Africa to the New World and sold into slavery. An untold number died at different stages of the journey — overland in Africa, during the “middle passage” at sea or soon after arrival. Among those who perished, most died of disease, some by suicide and still others from wounds or execution following failed revolts.
For nearly four centuries, as Greg Grandin writes in his powerful new book, slavery was the “flywheel” that drove the global development of everything from trade and insurance to technology, religion and medicine. To read “The Empire of Necessity” is to get a sort of revolving scan from the center of the wheel. What we see is an endless sequence of human transactions — the production and exchange of meat, sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, gold, among many other things — all connected, through slavery, by linkages whose full extent cannot be discerned from any point along the way. Slaves, Grandin writes, “were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities and capital.”
Grandin’s kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum. Beginning in 1804 with their embarkation from West Africa, he follows a particular group of slaves to a British slave ship until it is seized in the name of “liberty, equality and fraternity” by a French pirate, who exercised his liberty by selling them to a buyer in Buenos Aires. Then came a forced march across the “never-ending blanket of grass” of the Argentine pampas, which must have cruelly reminded the captives of the African steppe they once had known. Next was the hard climb into the Andes, where the weak and sick had their limbs or heads cut off in order to facilitate removal of shackles and halters for future use, their mutilated bodies left to nonhuman predators along the trail. Upon arrival in Valparaiso, survivors were taken aboard the slave ship Tryal, bound for Lima, under the command of a Spaniard named Benito Cerreño.
Into this harrowing account Grandin, the author of “Fordlandia,” intersperses sections about two New Englanders who seem at first disconnected from the story but who were destined to intersect with the lives — and deaths — of the slaves, and thereby with each other. The first was a merchant seaman named Amasa Delano who dropped anchor in late 1805 at Santa Maria Island off the Chilean coast. The second was a Massachusetts writer, Herman Melville (from whom Grandin borrows his title), who, probably sometime in the 1840s, read Delano’s memoir and was drawn to the tale of what happened early in 1805 when Delano spied a ship sailing erratically near the island, in evident need of help.
That ship was the Tryal, whose human “cargo” had rebelled, murdered their owner along with a score of other whites and demanded that Cerreño sail them back to Africa. Fifty years later, Melville made Delano’s story the basis of a short novel that he called “Benito Cereno.”
When Delano boarded the vessel to aid what he surmised was a distressed crew, he was duped by the risen slaves — and by Cerreño, who feared for his life should he hint at the truth — into believing that the disorder aboard was the result of storm damage and disease. But as Delano was being rowed back to his own ship, the Spanish captain suddenly leapt overboard after him, screaming for help. Now grasping the truth of the situation (at least some of it), Delano dispatched an armed party that subdued, then tortured, the rebellious slaves. When he returned to the ship, he found them “writhing in their viscera.”
In “Benito Cereno,” Melville retold these events with some significant ####changes. Omitting what Grandin calls “Delano’s nearly yearlong hounding” of the Spaniard for what he considered his due compensation for the rescue, he emphasized Cereno’s lingering shock and Delano’s impenetrable insouciance. He focused on the leader of the slave rebellion, whose corpse, after his trial and hanging, was decapitated, with the head impaled on a spike in the main plaza of Lima so all could contemplate his “voiceless end.”
Melville refused to write knowingly about the unknowable inner lives of the slaves, a reticence that elevated his novella far above the antislavery manifestoes of his time in which slaves appear in one form of caricature or another. He conveyed the horror of slavery while looking unblinkingly at the reciprocal fury of self-liberated slaves toward those who had enslaved them.
Grandin does not say much about the literary power of “Benito Cereno.” But by reconstructing the world through which the slaves moved toward their doom, he has done more than any previous scholar — and there have been many — to illuminate the context of the work in which Melville confronted slavery without presuming to comprehend its vast ramifications. “The Empire of Necessity” is also a significant contribution to the largely impossible yet imperative effort to retrieve some trace of the countless lives that slavery consumed.
THE EMPIRE OF NECESSITY
Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World