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The Empire of Necessity

A slave revolt on the high seas sheds light on many historical ironies.

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The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World,
by Greg Grandin,
Metropolitan Books,
384 pages

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It isn’t known if the 72 enslaved Africans aboard the trading ship Tryal – among them eight newborns – were aware of the successful conclusion of Haiti’s long slave revolution that year, 1804, as they rose up and took control of the ship.

The captives had already endured a yearlong ordeal. They had been taken in chains from their home in West Africa by British slavers. Their ship was then captured by a French privateer (a Marseillaise-singing Jacobin no less), who sold them to a Spaniard who marched them across South America and over the Andes and put them on another ship bound for Lima, Peru.

Their 53 days of freedom aboard the Tryal were cut short by an American ship captain who made sure they would be sold back into slavery in Lima. This act freed him from mounting debts incurred during his disastrous voyage hunting nearly extinct seals.

In The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, Greg Grandin has chronicled the historical event that inspired Herman Melville to write the novella “Benito Cereno” in 1855. Grandin goes one step further, however, by making Melville one of his book’s leading figures, alongside the slave leaders Mori and Babo, the seal hunter Amasa Delano (the American captain who returned the slaves to captivity), and Cerreño, the hapless Spanish captain of the Tryal. 

The author of “Fordlandia” and a professor of history at New York University, Grandin has written a gripping, lavishly researched account of high seas drama, as well as the trials of the slaves before and after their revolt. Equally fascinating is the thesis Grandin advances: that in 1804 human political liberty and abject bondage were both rising apace – often advanced by the very same people. It wasn’t so much irony as cause and effect, the author argues.

Slavery made the modern world, the argument goes. Slaves provided cheap labor, of course, but also substantial collateral for business investment, profits for insurance companies, and a potent stimulus to expanding global trade.

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