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The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

by Greg Grandin

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3261980,230 (4.11)40
Documents an early nineteenth-century event that inspired Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," tracing the cultural, economic, and religious clash that occurred aboard a distressed Spanish ship of West African pirates. One morning in 1805, off a remote island in the South Pacific, Captain Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, climbed aboard a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans who appeared to be slaves. They weren't. Having earlier seized control of the vessel and slaughtered most of the crew, they were staging an elaborate ruse. When Delano, an idealistic, anti-slavery republican, finally realized the deception--that the men and women he thought were slaves were actually running the ship--he responded with explosive violence. Drawing on research on four continents, historian Greg Grandin explores the multiple forces that culminated in this extraordinary event--an event that inspired Herman Melville's masterpiece "Benito Cereno". Here, Grandin uses the dramatic happenings of that day to map a new transnational history of slavery in the Americas, capturing the clash of peoples, economies, and faiths that was the New World in the early 1800s.--From publisher description.… (more)
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Herman Melville wrote a novel about the historical incident at the center of this book—enslaved Africans took over a slave ship and then, nearly out of resources, forced the captain to pretend that all was well and seek aid from an American ship that came near, captained by Amasa Delano (yes, that family). But the scheme was revealed and the mutineers killed or reenslaved. The book is about South American slavery, the links between the Americas, and the resource extraction that encompassed slavery but also included the massively wasteful sealing operations that Delano’s ship was trying to profit from. It couldn’t because the seals had quickly been depopulated; Delano also failed to get what he thought was a just reward for helping the enslavers retake the other ship. It’s a story of intersecting lifeworlds and brutalities. ( )
  rivkat | Nov 9, 2022 |
Of course, its not really an untold history. Its been told at least twice before - once by one of the participants, Amasa Delano, and a fictionalised version by Herman Melville, in his book Benito Cerreno, the name of another of the participants.

But admittedly, its not a story that is well known. For slaves held on a slave transport to rise up was not especially remarkable; Grandin refers to almost 500 such cases. But what was unusual was for the slaves to take control of the ship, but construct a facade such that Cerreno still appeared to be the master, such that a visiting Captain, Delano was fooled.

And Grandin tells this story well. But of course, there is not a tremendous amount to tell. And so Grandin fills it out not only with the back stories of Delano, Cerreno and such of the slaves that are recorded and, as might be expected, general context of the slave trade, but also goes down many interesting rabbit holes, such as the sealing trade (brutal and devastating to seal populations, and must have obviously been so), the reasons for the distaste for Muslim slaves (but they took them anyway), how marine insurance worked, and much else.

Mostly this is interesting and works. Sometimes it feels like the padding it undoubtedly is. Grandin has, after all, managed to turn a chapter of Delano's autobiography into an entire book. None the less, the reader will come away with a much better understanding of slavery, the slave trade, and the appalling privations that slaves faced on long journeys to the other side of the world. Recommended ( )
  Opinionated | Jun 13, 2020 |
Though well-written, this is not an easy read: Grandin's narrative has breathtaking scope, changes focus so often, and weaves in so much that at times one must really slow down or even backtrack to make sense of it all. But the payoff for patient reading is great. By virtue of my profession, I had a pretty decent prior knowledge of many (by no means all) subjects explored here, but Grandin arranges his material into new combinations that have transformed and challenged my understanding. Also, Grandin writes about Melville with a feeling for literature and a critical insight not (from my experience) always to be expected when historians write about literature.

There are weaknesses. The narrative, perhaps inevitably given its scope, is often disjointed, and again although the scope of the narrative excuses this to some extent, I think a more unified and coherent narrative was possible. And I rarely found Grandin's efforts to interpret the Tryal rebels's motivations and actions in terms of elements of Islamic belief and culture more than speculative. ( )
  middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This will be a short review as I am currently deployed and the internet connection here is tenuous at best. This was a highly entertaining and informative volume; Grandin does an excellent job of covering most of the selected topics in an appropriate depth and in an accessible manner. Grandin weaves together many different threads in a manner that is relatively easy to follow and provides a narrative-esque flow to many parts of the book. I would recommend this book to others. ( )
  RhodestoRome | May 4, 2014 |
I learned quite a few new things about slavery in South America, and was reintroduced to many more. Slavery in Spanish America laid the template for slavery in the South in ways that are complex and culturally tied to the newly burgeoning merchant class in the New World (whalers, seal hunters, plantation owners, timber barons, slave traders, speculators, and the like) and industrial capitalism. Slavery was also partly responsible for major changes to modern medicine, law, trade agreements, revolutions and/or governmental shifts, etc.

In addition, there are also a lot of strange connections between the slave revolt that influenced Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno and the book of fiction that was birthed from its non-fiction narrative. Melville and his relatives were connected to real-life players in the slave revolt drama on the Tryal (San Dominick in the novel) in ways that challenge the boundaries of “the real” and “the fictive.”

There are many digressions and interludes along the way. For me, they functioned much like many of the tangents in Moby-Dick, always leading back to the main narrative and propping it up in ways that I didn't anticipate when the break began.

I have to go back and read this again. Dense and chewy, without being overly "academic" or pretentious (although it is heavily researched and noted).

Highly recommended. ( )
  troysworktable | Apr 26, 2014 |
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Grandin probes the paradox of revolutionary liberty and racial slavery during an alleged Age of Enlightenment... Stretching far beyond his core story, Grandin leads readers around the globe and throughout a generation to reveal the contradictions unleashed by the age of revolution.
 
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Documents an early nineteenth-century event that inspired Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno," tracing the cultural, economic, and religious clash that occurred aboard a distressed Spanish ship of West African pirates. One morning in 1805, off a remote island in the South Pacific, Captain Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, climbed aboard a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans who appeared to be slaves. They weren't. Having earlier seized control of the vessel and slaughtered most of the crew, they were staging an elaborate ruse. When Delano, an idealistic, anti-slavery republican, finally realized the deception--that the men and women he thought were slaves were actually running the ship--he responded with explosive violence. Drawing on research on four continents, historian Greg Grandin explores the multiple forces that culminated in this extraordinary event--an event that inspired Herman Melville's masterpiece "Benito Cereno". Here, Grandin uses the dramatic happenings of that day to map a new transnational history of slavery in the Americas, capturing the clash of peoples, economies, and faiths that was the New World in the early 1800s.--From publisher description.

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