Slavery in the New World was a peculiar institution, deformed from its original intentions. It was meant to be a temporary measure. The Spanish forced it on the English. The English forced it on the Spanish. It was an unfortunate accident that no one quite knew how to escape.
In the annals of slavery, you can find theses that support all these propositions. In his new book The Empire of Necessity, however, New York University history professor Greg Grandin argues that slavery was an integral part of the market revolution that shaped the history of not just the United States but also the rest of the Americas, the engine that provided labor to cut sugarcane, harvest maize, mine gold, dry hides, and do other kinds of essential work to enrich their masters while providing the basis for collateral and credit. Slaves created wealth in myriad ways—not least because, numbering in the millions, they were also consumers of many of the goods they produced.
It was no accident, then. Small wonder that wars were fought over the issue, that it hangs over hemispheric memory today. Small wonder that slaveholders were so desperate to hang onto their property, and that the institution made criminals of innocents and bestowed innocence on criminals—a matter that provides the long-overlooked episode on which Grandin’s account hangs.
On February 20, 1805, an American sea captain named Amasa Delano—a distant relative of the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt—boarded a “strange ship” full of Africans, mulattos, and Spanish sailors that had apparently been damaged in a storm at sea. Though sensing that something was amiss, he left supplies with the ship, which flew no nation’s flag. He was about to cast off when the Spanish captain, a man named Benito Cerreño, leapt into the sea, clambered aboard Delano’s away boat, and revealed the truth: The African slaves aboard had mutinied, killed several members of his crew and had seized control of the ship. They had ordered him to take them home to Senegal—and to pretend to be still in command when the Americans boarded their ship, the Tryal.
It took Delano only a little time to organize a boarding party and quell the rebellion. Though he professed to be opposed to slavery, Delano turned the seized cargo over to the Spanish authorities, who hanged the ringleaders.
Those events might have been forgotten altogether had not the novelist Herman Melville come across an account sometime around the time that he was writing Moby-Dick, yielding his claustrophobic short novel Benito Cereno, published in 1855. Melville used several of his novels to mount thinly disguised attacks on American pieties and oppose the rising age of empire, but not many historians have crossed over into the realm of literature to explore his sources. Grandin did, separating out the historical events from those that took place only in the mind of the fictional Delano—and the fact, which Melville carefully hid from his readers until well into the story, that the slaves were really running things.
Grandin followed his first encounter with Melville’s novella with a reading of the real Delano’s memoir, a chronicle of disappointments and repeated failures punctuated by ever weaker expressions of faith in the promise of the American Revolution. “So many of his stories, including the one about his encounter with the slaves, were about deception and deceit,” Grandin says. “He once told a ghost story that so panicked his crew that he couldn’t convince them that it was just a story. Rather than ‘lead them into reason,’ as he had hoped, he reinforced their superstitions.” Thanks to such incidents, it seems, Delano believed that he was one of the fortunate few who could see the world as it really was—and that faith in reason and free will “decided who was free and who wasn’t.”
The individuals in Grandin’s story are compelling. But, Grandin says, it’s important to look beyond them to the larger system in which their lives played out, at what he calls “the mundane, ordinary relations that they were caught up in.” In that regard, he notes, it is an irony but no accident that the Age of Liberty and the Age of Slavery were one and the same. Slaves were slaves because the prevailing logic of things—Melville called it “whale-lines,” which could hook whole nations as well as great sea creatures—made it that way: The free market enslaves, while our insistence on the primacy of the individual “not only denies the necessities that bind people together but resents any reminder of those necessities.”
Adds Grandin on that note, “I’d say that the most disturbing idea at the heart of this history, as well as at Melville’s Benito Cereno, is not exclusively about slavery or the racism that would survive its defeat, but the truncated, highly individualized vision of freedom that developed in slavery’s shadow.” A peculiar institution indeed, slavery—and perhaps not one that we like to be reminded of, central though it is to what we have become.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.