[Marxism] Greg Grandin’s ‘Empire of Necessity’

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 12 15:01:37 MST 2014

NY Times Sunday Book Review JAN. 10, 2014
A Vengeful Fury
Greg Grandin’s ‘Empire of Necessity’


Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World
By Greg Grandin
Illustrated. 360 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $30.

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 
Launch media viewer
“Slavery was the motor of Spanish America’s market revolution.” 
Photograph by Bojan Brecelj/Corbis (19th-century Zanzibar)

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 

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.

Andrew Delbanco, the author of “Melville: His World and Work,” is 
writing a book about the United States in the 1850s.

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