Pulitzer Prize finalist Grandin (History/New York Univ.; Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, 2009, etc.) offers a splendid account of the 1804 slave rebellion made famous in Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno.
On a sealing expedition in the South Pacific, veteran captain Amasa Delano (1763–1823) encountered a ship in seeming distress, boarded it to provide food and water, and discovered a great deception: The black-skinned people on board—West African slaves—were in command of the vessel and holding its Spanish captain hostage. The clever role-playing by mutinous slaves sharply contradicted the prevailing belief that slaves lacked cunning and reason, and Grandin uses the episode as a revealing window on the Atlantic slave trade and life in Spanish America in the early 1800s. Delano, a veteran seaman from New England, where slavery supported the economy, is seen as “a new man of the American Revolution” who, like many, championed freedom and found slavery morally reprehensible, yet nonetheless played his own role in the system. He eventually led an attack on the rebel-held ship and tortured many captives. Grandin’s research in the archives, libraries and museums of nine countries shines forth on each page of this excellent book. He writes with authority on every aspect of the “slavers’ fever” that gripped the New World and details vividly the horrors of disease-ridden slave ships (“floating tombs”), the treks of slave caravans overland through the pampas to Lima from Buenos Aires, and the harsh, brutal life of sealers, who clubbed and skinned their victims, annihilating many seal rookeries of the Argentine and Chilean islands. The author also examines the parallels between Melville’s novel and the historic incident, and he reflects on evidence of the omnipresence of slavery as an institution that he discovered on his research travels.
Deeply researched and well-written, this book will appeal to general readers and specialists alike.