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The Great Trap for All Americans

A scene from the first production of Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, part of his trilogy, The Old Glory, directed by Jonathan Miller at the American Place Theater in 1964 and based on Herman Melville’s novella. Captain Amasa Delano (Lester Rawlins, second from left), who has boarded the slave ship San Dominick off the coast of Trinidad, is listening to its captain, Don Benito Cereno (Frank Langella), and is still unaware that the slaves, under the command of Cereno’s servant, Babu (Roscoe Lee Browne, right), have taken over the ship.
Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
A scene from the first production of Robert Lowell’s Benito Cereno, part of his trilogy, The Old Glory, directed by Jonathan Miller at the American Place Theater in 1964 and based on Herman Melville’s novella. Captain Amasa Delano (Lester Rawlins, second from left), who has boarded the slave ship San Dominick off the coast of Trinidad, is listening to its captain, Don Benito Cereno (Frank Langella), and is still unaware that the slaves, under the command of Cereno’s servant, Babu (Roscoe Lee Browne, right), have taken over the ship.

One hundred and fifty years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, the nation’s first black president paid tribute to “a century and a half of freedom—not simply for former slaves, but for all of us.” It sounds innocuous enough till you start listening to the very different kinds of political rhetoric around us. All of us are not free, insists the Black Lives Matter movement, when “the afterlife of slavery” endures in police brutality and mass incarceration. All of us are not free, says the Occupy movement, when student loans impose “debt slavery” on the middle and working classes. All of us are not free, protests the Tea Party, when “slavery” lurks within big government. Social Security? “A form of modern, twenty-first-century slavery,” says Florida congressman Allen West. The national debt? “It’s going to be like slavery when that note is due,” says Sarah Palin. Obamacare? “Worse than slavery,” says Ben Carson. Black, white, left, right—all of us, it seems, can be enslaved now.

Americans learn about slavery as an “original sin” that tempted the better angels of our nation’s egalitarian nature. But “the thing about American slavery,” writes Greg Grandin in his 2014 book The Empire of Necessity, about an uprising on a slave ship off the coast of Chile and the successful effort to end it, is that “it never was just about slavery.” It was about an idea of freedom that depended on owning and protecting personal property. As more and more settlers arrived in the English colonies, the property they owned increasingly took the human form of African slaves. Edmund Morgan captured the paradox in the title of his classic American Slavery, American Freedom: “Freedom for some required the enslavement of others.” When the patriots protested British taxation as a form of “slavery,” they weren’t being hypocrites. They were defending what they believed to be the essence of freedom: the right to preserve their property.

The Empire of Necessity explores “the fullness of the paradox of freedom and slavery” in the America of the early 1800s. Yet to understand the chokehold of slavery on American ideas of freedom, it helps to go back to the beginning. At the time of the Revolution, slavery had been a fixture of the thirteen colonies for as long as the US today has been without it. “Slavery was in England’s American colonies, even its New England colonies, from the very beginning,” explains Princeton historian Wendy Warren in her deeply thoughtful, elegantly written New England Bound, an exploration of captivity in seventeenth-century New England. The Puritan ideal of a “city on a hill,” long held up as a model of America at its communitarian best, actually rested on the backs of “numerous enslaved and colonized people.”

New England was never a “slave society”—where slaves performed the bulk of labor—but it depended heavily on slavery nonetheless, due to its economic entanglement with the Caribbean. As a crucial supplier of provisions to the sugar islands, New England, one captain observed, was truly “the key of the Indies without w[hi]ch Jamaica, Barbados & the Caribee Islands are not able to subsist.” Fortunes made in sugar, fish, and slaves underpinned the development of New England colonies in turn, not least the colleges taking shape in Cambridge, Providence, and New Haven.

The greatest revelations of New England Bound lie in Warren’s meticulous reconstruction of slavery in colonial New England. Enslaved Africans and Indians have been “largely invisible” to historians of the region in part because they blended into the economy alongside free laborers. They weren’t invisible to colonists. With slaves comprising 5 to 10 percent of the urban population, anyone in a New England town would have seen slaves hauling water, loading warehouses, “boxing” pine trees for turpentine, or serving meals in a wealthy family’s house.

Warren pores over the patchy archival record with a probing eye and an ear keen to silences. One of Boston’s first colonists orders a slave to rape and impregnate another “so that he might own a ‘breed of Negroes’” to cultivate his land. In the heat of King Philip’s War in 1675 and 1676, the white women of Marblehead, Massachusetts, set upon two Indian captives with sticks and stones, flaying them alive till “their heads [were] off and gone, and their flesh in a manner pulled from their bones.” The townspeople of Salem come across the body of a slave named John, his chest torn by a bullet fired from the bottom of his rib cage. He had leaned on a long-barreled musket and shot himself. Cotton Mather receives a slave as a present from his congregation and immediately renamed the man, because, as Warren writes, “What’s in a name? Mastery.”

In 1700 the Massachusetts judge Samuel Sewall published the colony’s first call for abolition, albeit to deaf ears. The number of slaves in New England increased up to the 1750s, then started falling; in the 1780s all the New England states passed laws phasing out slavery. By the 1830s, slavery had receded so far from New Englanders’ sense of themselves that as sophisticated an authority on colonial times as Nathaniel Hawthorne was astonished to see black people on a visit to Williamstown, because he associated them with the cotton plantations of the South. But the marks had been made. Through laws and labor practices, ideas about freedom and rights, the “thread of slavery” had been “so woven into the fabric of society that pulling it out…threatened to wreck the entire design.”

Hawthorne’s young friend Herman Melville also mislearned his colonial New England history. He named the ship at the center of Moby-Dick (dedicated to Hawthorne) the Pequod for the Pequot Indians, whom he believed, wrongly, were “now extinct as the ancient Medes.” As Greg Grandin observes in The Empire of Necessity, however, Melville knew all about the contradictions of slavery and freedom. Not long after finishing Moby-Dick, he found a parable of American slavery and American freedom in the adventures of a Duxbury, Massachusetts, sea captain named Amasa Delano.

Born in 1763, Delano personified a kind of American freedom. Relentlessly entrepreneurial, adventurous, and individualistic, he spent some of his teens fighting in the American Revolution, sold New England salt cod in Saint-Domingue, smuggled opium into China, chatted with the king of Palau in the South Seas, and “considered the resemblance between the Christian Holy Trinity and a three-headed statuette he came across in Bombay representing Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma.” He made money and lost it all in a trading fiasco. Returning penniless to Massachusetts, Delano built a new ship, named it the Perseverance, and considered where to go in it. He could have turned slave trader—there was money in that—but “he found slavery abhorrent.” He could have become a whaler, but it took a lot of start-up capital to go into whaling, and a certain kind of temperament. Delano went for easier prey. He chose seals.

Delano and his crew set out from Boston in 1799. For eighteen months they criss-crossed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in search of seals. They weathered six months among hard-bitten Australian renegades sealing in the Bass Strait; they passed from one depleted rookery to another in the southeastern Pacific. By 1805, six years out, still no seals. The crew plotted desertion; Delano “gave them good wholesome floggings” to keep order.

Then one February day, rounding the island of Santa María off the coast of Chile, they saw a ship. It flew no flag, its hull was caked in barnacles and draped with kelp, “its sails threadbare and its rigging a tangle.” Its name, just legible, was the Tryal. Acting out of maritime courtesy, and perhaps hoping the ship “might even help him with his own troubles,” Delano rowed over to the obviously suffering Tryal with a boatload of provisions. He feared it might be a privateer in disguise, but on boarding (as he described in his 1817 memoir Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres) he “saw the decks were filled with slaves.” They “crowded around me to relate their stories, and make known their grievances”—chiefly, a lack of water—while the diffident young Spanish captain, Don Benito Cerreño, “had evidently lost much of his authority over the slaves.” Cerreño was constantly shadowed by a slave called Mori, and resisted all Delano’s efforts to talk one-on-one.

After a long, strained, strange day on board, Delano got back into his boat to leave. Just as he rowed away, Cerreño leapt from the Tryal’s deck and into Delano’s boat. Frantically he blurted out the truth: the slaves had rebelled two months earlier and forced him to sail to Africa. It was only then that Delano realized he had witnessed, as Grandin puts it, “a one-act, nine-hour, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relation,” in which rebel slaves pretended to be subject to a captain they had effectively taken captive.

Melville lifted this episode from Delano’s memoir and reworked it into his celebrated short story “Benito Cereno” (1855), “one of the most haunting pieces of writing in American literature.” (It inspired Robert Lowell, in turn, to write an eerie stage adaptation as part of his 1964 dramatic trilogy, The Old Glory.) In The Empire of Necessity, Grandin peels back Melville’s story to show Delano’s and uncover the substance of what actually happened on the Tryal. The result is inventive, vividly written, often insightful. It’s also digressive and choppy, often to the detriment of its argument.

Composed of nearly three dozen short sections, including a series of “interludes” on Melville and his attitudes about slavery and freedom, The Empire of Necessity becomes a kaleidoscope of the history of slavery in the revolutionary era. At its best, the book reflects familiar features from new angles. Instead of writing a history of the slave trade that rehearses the well-known horrors of the Middle Passage, for instance, Grandin delves into the tactics of contraband slavers, describing methods of stealing and disguising ships that rarely appear in the pages of Patrick O’Brian. Before the encounter with Captain Delano some of the slaves on the Tryal had been sold in a dead-of-night transaction on a deserted Uruguayan beach, while the ship that had brought them from Africa was transformed—with five barrels of black paint—from the Neptune to the Aguila, and spirited away under the command of a newly promoted Portuguese cabin boy.

The Caribbean and Brazil were the primary destinations for African slaves, but Grandin travels to the Río de la Plata, the hub of Spanish-American slavery. Montevideo was the estuary’s “official slave harbor.” Newly arrived captives were penned into the “squalid” caserío de los negros, “a permanent refugee camp for people from all over the African continent.” Some of them might have ended up as street hawkers, advertising their wares “in a great lamenting dirge, as if all the pain in the world were needed to announce that the barley cakes were made that morning.” Others might have been sent across to Buenos Aires, fully one third of whose population in the early nineteenth century was African and mulatto.

Edouard Antoine Renard: Rebellion of a Slave on a Slave Ship, 1833
Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource
Edouard Antoine Renard: Rebellion of a Slave on a Slave Ship, 1833

As this detail suggests, Argentina’s long-standing self-image as the “whitest” nation in South America has required a deliberate erasure of its African (to say nothing of its indigenous) heritage. Yet as Grandin points out, Argentina’s extensive cattle industry, “which would drive the country to the heights of the world economy…was all made possible by slave labor” manning the slaughterhouses and salting plants.

Grandin’s tale begins in Buenos Aires, where Babo and Mori, the eventual leaders of the revolt on the Tryal, were sold and sent to Lima. He describes their journey across the dusty pampas, creaking in cowhide-covered wagons through a landscape uncannily “similar to what they had left behind” in Senegambia. Climbing up to the sharp peaks of the Andes, they snaked “through a physical world that seemed not of this world,” bodies freezing and heads pounding in the high altitude. They had exceptionally clear views, in those mountain nights, of the inverted southern moon.

This was of great significance for Babo and Mori, Grandin argues, because they were Muslim. Babo, Grandin surmises, was “probably educated in qur’anic schools” and “could have been a marabout (a cleric) or a faqíh (a scholar) in his former life,” which meant that he monitored the lunar cycle as exhibiting turns through a religious calendar. The slaves crossed the Andes at the beginning of Ramadan; toward the end of the sacred month they boarded the Tryal in Valparaiso and set sail for Lima. On “the eve of the holiest day of that holy month: Laylat al-Qadr, or the Night of Power,” they were at sea.

That was the night the slaves rebelled. Armed from a stash of axes and knives, they slaughtered eighteen crew members, put their owner in chains, and asked Captain Cerreño “if there were any ‘lands of black people in these seas where they could be taken.’” They ordered Cerreño to sail them back to Africa. He agreed and set off deceptively in the opposite direction, hoping to run into salvation. Two months later the Tryal met the Perseverance.

What kind of a man would chase a whale around the world? Melville gave his answer in Moby-Dick. Whaling took courage, skill, teamwork, and not a little hubris. What kind of a man would club a seal? Whalers embraced danger by hunting the greatest mammals on the planet; the most reckless thing about sealing was the scale of the slaughter. On the barren islands of the southern Pacific, crews were turned loose among bleating herds of seals and sea elephants, each one a rippling prize of blubber and skin. To claim one, all you had to do was thump it on the nose to stun it, slip a knife under its jaw, and slide the blade down to the tail, punching in a fatal stab to the heart along the way. Thump, stun, slash, and stab. Sealers killed hundreds by the day, tens of thousands in a single voyage. They fed themselves on seal steaks, on salted seal tongues, and black pudding made of seal blood; they dwelled in whale-rib huts covered with sealskins. They killed so many that they had to change destinations from one voyage to the next, as seal populations were hunted to extinction.

When Amasa Delano described what had happened on the Tryal, in one chapter of his memoir, he said almost nothing about slavery. He was much more concerned about getting paid. As soon as Cerreño explained what had happened onboard the Tryal, Delano dispatched the men of the Perseverance to wrest back control from the rebels, on the understanding that his crew would win some prize money in exchange. Armed with their sealing knives, Delano’s men retook the Tryal with savage efficiency. To his dismay, however, once they reached harbor in Chile, Cerreño flatly refused Delano’s demand for prize payment. More than half of Delano’s chapter on the affair consists of documents concerning his extended quest to get compensation in Spanish courts for taking over the ship. Truly, for Delano, this encounter was a “tryal.”

When Herman Melville dramatized Delano’s account in “Benito Cereno,” he said absolutely nothing about sealing. Writing in the 1850s, at the height of antebellum America’s “impasse” over slavery, Melville used the slaves’ masquerade, and Delano’s misunderstanding of it, to evoke “a nation trapped…inside its own prejudices.” That’s why Melville named his story “Benito Cereno,” not “Amasa Delano.” It’s why he ignored Delano’s legal woes entirely, reproducing instead a version of Cerreño’s firsthand account of the uprising as an attached “original document.” It’s why he changed the ship’s name from the Tryal to the San Dominick, playing on Saint-Domingue, the colonial name for Haiti.

The disjuncture between these tellings points to Melville’s curious role in The Empire of Necessity. Sometimes he seems like a gate-crasher in a history of the revolutionary era; other times he’s the agent of Grandin’s most explicit meditations on slavery and freedom. Melville, Grandin stresses, understood that there was no such thing as pure freedom, because society placed bonds on everyone. “Freedom,” he wrote, “is the name for a thing that is not freedom.” Captain Ahab is one of literature’s great villains because he subordinates the freedom of his crew to the service of his unfettered monomania. Ahab has been interpreted as an irrational “insurgent,” as “a planet destroyer embodying man’s insatiable quest for more and more resources”—even as a forerunner of Hitler and Stalin. (Though it’s easy to appreciate The Empire of Necessity without having to read “Benito Cereno,” it does help to be familiar with Moby-Dick.)

But it’s Delano, Grandin argues, who “represents a more common form of modern authority.” His business of sealing captured “the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism, and warfare, men brutally exploiting one another and nature.” He’s the one who systematically seizes resources until they’re exhausted, and who drives his disgruntled crew into violence against blacks on the promise of financial gain. He’s the one who endangers society “not because he is dissenting from the laws of commerce and capital but because he faithfully and routinely administers them.”

Grandin presents The Empire of Necessity as a reflection on the entanglement of freedom with slavery. In apt tribute to Melville, it’s just as worth reading as a reflection on narrative form. It’s no accident that the conventions of modern Anglo-American history writing came of age alongside those of the novel, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Virtually all the period’s most popular novelists (Scott, Cooper, Dickens, and of course Hawthorne) wrote fiction set in a historical past, while the great Victorian historians—Macaulay, Carlyle, Bancroft—modeled history on the plots and pacing of fiction. If today many popular historians aspire to the condition of fiction (what greater compliment than to say a history book “reads like a novel”? what more lucrative prize than a film or TV option?), many Victorian novelists aspired to the condition of history.

Where does the line between history and fiction lie? Historians don’t go where sources can’t lead them, into the unrecorded realms of a person’s thoughts, senses, or speech. Fiction writers, though, can enter characters’ minds to determining effect. What Melville does so brilliantly in “Benito Cereno” is something a historian would be hard-pressed to achieve: he builds dramatic power through the misperceptions of an unreliable narrator, and follows this with an explosive revelation of truth.

History, by contrast, gains strength precisely from the reliability of its narrator—the authoritative historian—who guarantees (usually with the help of endnotes) that what is chronicled is more or less “true.” Another line between history and fiction runs outside an individual’s mind. Historians try to strip away the subjective in order to make arguments: they identify patterns surrounding plots, locate individuals in collectives, set problems in spatial and temporal perspective.

If postmodernism taught historians anything, it’s that subjectivity can’t ever be avoided. Nonetheless, conditioned as much by professional conventions as by kinds of evidence, historians writing for a general audience still more or less follow the forms set by the Victorians. There’s usually a central plot organized by an offstage “omniscient” narrator, driven by chronology, and animated by strong leading characters. Grandin wrote his National Book Award–shortlisted Fordlandia (2009) in this mode. The Empire of Necessity adopts a far more imaginative structure by fracturing chronology, perspective, and plot, and these brave narrative choices pay off in a series of dynamic scenes and memorable aperçus. Grandin’s use of fiction also implicitly challenges the privileged status of archival sources in the writing of history—which is important when we consider how few documentary traces the anonymous millions of enslaved Africans left behind.

The novel has come a long way since the Victorians, and popular history can benefit from a creative update. That said, any narrative’s success at delivering an argument can rise or fall on matters of selection: what to reveal when, how much detail to provide, which characters to place in the foreground, and so on. Often Grandin drifts off into a sea of stories. There’s a potted history of the Reconquista, an excursus on Borges’s racism, an interlude on Melville’s portrayal of the Galápagos tortoise. A short chapter tells of the San Juan Nepomuceno, seized by slaves in 1800 and taken on “perhaps the greatest escape in the history of New World slavery”; although its journey is prominently mapped on the book’s endpapers, there’s no indication that anybody involved in the Tryal knew anything about it. The thing about a kaleidoscope is that you can be mesmerized by its colorful patterns and still have no idea what you’re actually looking at.

“Who aint a slave?” asks Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Melville’s “implied answer—no one,” Grandin argues, stemmed from his belief that “all human beings…oscillate somewhere between the two extreme poles of liberty and slavery that defined much of the political rhetoric of antebellum America.” Listening to the Tea Partiers shrieking “slavery” today, we can ask how much has changed.

The vital difference is that in Melville’s time abolition was the nation’s most urgent challenge. Today’s cries of “slavery” by the Tea Party and others just seem calculated to shut down productive discussion of the most pressing question for our time: What does freedom really mean in a neoliberal age? Freedom from poverty? From surveillance? From big business? From taxes? And what can or should the state do to secure it? Americans no longer seem to be a community of whalers, united by the solidarities of industrial labor and endangered by the occasional maverick Ahab. We’re an unruly bunch of sealers, out to thump, stun, slash, and stab.