Book Review

‘Empire of Necessity’ shows a little-known side of slavery

Updated: 2014-02-16T04:17:45Z


The Washington Post

In February 1805 in the South Pacific, a New England sea captain named Amasa Delano spotted a battered cargo ship wallowing badly. Leaving his own ship to investigate, Delano boarded the strange vessel, the aptly named Tryal.

He found a terse Spanish captain, Benito Cerreno, with a skeleton crew of demoralized sailors and a surprisingly impertinent cargo of African slaves. Later in the day, Cerreno suddenly jumped overboard to seek haven on Delano’s ship and reveal that for six weeks he had been held hostage by rebel slaves, who had killed their former owner and most of the crew.

Led by Babo and his son Mori, the rebels had demanded that Cerreno pilot their vessel back to West Africa. Instead, he had deceived them by sailing around the Pacific in hopes of encountering another ship that might rescue him.

Although vaguely anti-slavery, Delano was avidly pro-profit. He expected to reap a windfall by capturing the Tryal and the slaves for resale as legal prizes. Delano’s crew stormed aboard the Tryal and, after four hours of bloody, hand-to-hand combat with cutlasses and pikes, killed seven rebels and subdued and tortured the other 65.

The dead included Babo, and among the captured was Mori, who was hanged with eight others in a Chilean town as a convicted murderer. The rest were auctioned to new owners. After a year of litigation and political appeals, Delano got a paltry financial settlement that barely paid the expenses of his wait.

A dozen years later, he hoped at last to profit from his triumph over the rebels by featuring it in his memoirs. In 1855, that narrative inspired Herman Melville to write a novella, “Benito Cereno,” which cast the captain as the victim of a moral darkness embodied by Babo.

In “The Empire of Necessity,” Greg Grandin retells the story and recurrently draws upon Melville for a set of “interludes” to highlight the moral stakes of the suppressed revolt.

Delano took pride in having fought for liberty in the American Revolution, and the Chileans were preparing to seek their independence from Spain. But both the captain and the Chilean judges felt no contradiction in killing blacks who had fought for freedom after suffering a tyranny far greater than what Britain and Spain had imposed on their colonists.

Grandin reminds readers “that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery.” Rather than shrinking, the slavery of Africans was rapidly expanding, particularly in Spanish America and the American South.

Grandin probes the paradox of revolutionary liberty and racial slavery during an alleged Age of Enlightenment. The partisans of that age celebrated the rational individual liberated from the constraints of history and social bonds. But such a socially isolated man had to discipline himself to transcend the passions that ordinarily possessed unthinking humanity.

The champions of individualism identified their polar opposites in people of darker skins, who allegedly had more passion and less reason. Grandin insists that the illusive ideal of the free individual “was honed against its fantasized opposite: a slave bonded as much to his appetites as he was to his master.”

Grandin leads readers around the globe and throughout a generation to reveal the contradictions unleashed by the age of revolution. The American Revolution taught Delano to adopt a self-celebrating but self-disciplined pursuit of personal profit. But his moral code proved worse than useless as he suffered “a long catalog of botches, fiascos, and debacles.”

On his fateful and unfruitful sealing voyage, he was facing bankruptcy if he came back empty-handed. Grimly sailing about with a largely empty hull, he stumbled upon the Tryal, whose capture he hoped would avert his ruin. It was not to be. He lost ship and home and landed in a debtor’s prison.

In the last, miserable years of his life, Delano lost faith, writing, “Please God, if there is a god, save my soul, if I have a soul.”

Grandin tells a great and moving story but bloats and dilutes it with long digressions, from the Spanish reconquista of Iberia from the Muslim Moors to the ox-hide trade in Argentina. Fortunately, the narrative revives whenever Grandin loops back to the lives of the core characters: Delano, Cerreno, Babo and Mori.

Their plights illuminate the leviathan that Grandin pursues.

Alan Taylor, a Washington Post Writers Group member, is the author of “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.”

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