Continental Drift

The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World BY Greg Grandin. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 384 pages. $30.

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

These days the island of Más Afuera—five hundred miles west of Santiago, Chile—may be known only as the place Jonathan Franzen went to spread the ashes of David Foster Wallace, as recounted in a 2011 essay in the New Yorker. But in March 1800, Amasa Delano, a ship’s captain from New England, arrived there hoping to fill his holds with sealskins. Sealing, like whaling, was a profitable new industry in the early nineteenth century, and Delano had already failed at whaling. He wasn’t the only one with such dreams. When Delano arrived at Más Afuera, there were fourteen other ships anchored around the island.

While seals were lucrative, elephant seals—also known as sea elephants—lived on the same island, and were hunted and taken for their oil. Sea elephants were enormous but not much of a threat to their human predators.

At times, rousing them from their slumber took more effort than dispatching them. When bulls did lift themselves up to protect their cows, their blubber-rich skin undulated in great waves up and down their bodies. . . . The animals being “soft and fat” and the lances “being sharp and long,” the men would perforate their prey in “a dozen places.” . . . Pierced in multiple places like Saint Sebastian, the creature begins to gush “fountains of blood, spouting to a considerable distance.”

This sounds horrible, of course. When I reached this description in The Empire of Necessity, I felt overwhelming pity for the sea elephants and disgust for the sealers. But once I finished the book, I reconsidered my reactions. Not because I was wrong to feel pity or disgust, but because I needed to ask myself whether my response would be different—about hunting sea elephants and seals or, say, enslaving human beings—if I’d had a vested interest in the outcome. If I had some skin in the game, so to speak.

Amasa Delano might not be remembered at all if Herman Melville hadn’t written the novella Benito Cereno in 1855. Melville took one chapter from Delano’s memoir and wrote the second-best book of his career. The best, Moby-Dick, had been published four years earlier and—famously—did not make Melville famous.

Robert Shore, The San Dominick, from “Benito Cereno,” 1965, oil on board, 33 x 44".
Robert Shore, The San Dominick, from “Benito Cereno,” 1965, oil on board, 33 x 44".

Benito Cereno retells the story of Delano’s contact in 1805 with the Tryal, a ship helmed by young Andalusian captain Benito Cerreño (Melville altered the spelling). Cerreño’s vessel (the San Dominick in the book) appears to be in trouble as it enters the bay where Delano’s ship is anchored. Delano takes a boat to help the Tryal. There he finds Cerreño, who explains that a storm killed most of his crew. There are also lots of Africans moving about freely on the ship. Delano spends the afternoon with Cerreño. He senses that something’s wrong, but can’t guess what. When Delano returns to his boat, the danger finally becomes clear: Cerreño leaps off the Tryal and into Delano’s ship shouting that the Africans have rebelled. They’ve been playing docile, but they—not a storm—are in fact what killed the crew. The Africans cut the Tryal’s anchor and sail off, but Delano’s men recapture the ship and its rebellious cargo. This is the chain of events in both real life and the novella.

In The Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin tracks backward from this episode like a sleuth, unearthing the motivations and machinations that collided on that day. We learn about not only Amasa Delano and Benito Cerreño but also, as records allow, the West Africans. Most important, the reader is given an overview of the era that is clear but never simplistic. “This was what historians call Spanish America’s market revolution,” Grandin writes in summing up the economic background of the incident, “and slaves were the flywheel on which the whole thing turned.” Melville turned this episode into a rumination on subjugation and subterfuge, the lasting toll of slavery on the European soul. Grandin’s vital book reads as a kind of ledger, relaying not just the cost of slavery but its profits, its lure.

The saga begins in January 1804 with a one-armed French pirate named François-de-Paule Hippolyte Mordeille. “The Spaniards in his multinational crew had trouble saying his name, so they called him Captain Manco—manco being the Spanish word for cripple.” Captain Cripple wasn’t bothered by the nickname. He hated the rank, though: “Mordeille was a seafaring Jacobin. He presided over men who wrapped red sashes around their waists, sang the ‘Marseillaise,’ and worked the deck to the rhythms of revolutionary chants. Long live the republic! Perish earthly kings! String up aristocrats from the yardarms!” Mordeille thus preferred to be known only as Citoyen Manco—Citizen Cripple.

Mordeille brought the same revolutionary zeal to his career as a pirate, Grandin observes; he “patrolled the coast of Africa from Île-de-France (now Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean to Senegal in the Atlantic, harassing the French Revolution’s enemies and guarding its friends.” In 1804, Mordeille sailed into Montevideo, then a Brazilian port, having captured the Neptune, a slave ship from Liverpool.

When Mordeille’s men opened the Neptune’s hatch, they found close to four hundred Africans, mostly boys and men between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, but also a number of women and children.

They were in chains and dressed in blue cotton smocks.

Some of the Africans who eventually rebelled on the Tryal were in that hold, but Mordeille couldn’t see the future. Instead, “Mordeille did the math and guessed that the ship’s slaves were worth, wholesale, at least 80,000 silver pesos.” Here is where Grandin first hints at his narrative design. Mordeille’s Jacobin ideals must duel with the promise of 80,000 pesos. It doesn’t take long for the internal struggle to be resolved: Citizen Cripple sold as many Africans as he could.

But OK, that guy’s a mercenary. Regardless of the flag he flew under, piracy was Mordeille’s true code. The Neptune was one of many slave ships based out of Montevideo, and it’s at that harbor that Grandin finds his next subjects. A few days after the Neptune pulled into port, a Portuguese ship, the Belisario, arrived. Two hundred and fifty-seven Africans had boarded the Belisario in Mozambique, ninety-one died in the crossing, “and most of those still alive were dying” by the time the ship reached Montevideo. Grandin describes the hold of a slave ship with the kind of detail that made my eyes quiver:

Along the way, Africans died from contagious diseases or from the miseries of crossing the ocean in a claustrophobically small space. Some went blind. Others lost their minds. Even when following the best practices of the early nineteenth century, the holds were never cleaned fast enough to counter accumulating strata of excrement, vomit, blood, and pus. With poor ventilation, baking under the equatorial sun, cargo bays festered and putrefied. Slave ships could be smelled from miles away.

The hellish realities of the Middle Passage meant Montevideo’s harbor doctors were busy. One ship, the Joaquin, arrived from Mozambique in 1804 with only thirty—out of an original group of 301—East Africans having survived the journey. Royal officials began an inquiry to determine fault for the losses. They called in five surgeons to investigate—two Brits, a Spaniard, a Swiss Italian, and one from the United States. “The commission decided that the East Africans had died from an intestinal illness aggravated by nostalgia, melancholía, and cisma—nostalgia, melancholia, and brooding, or mourning.”

Grandin parses out the implication of this finding beautifully. In 1804, these surgeons acknowledged the disease that ravaged those East African bodies, but also the condition—kidnap, loss, torture—that destroyed their souls. Their diagnosis suggests the surgeons were capable of empathy, a degree of understanding I wouldn’t have guessed at.

Yet that comprehension, or even the pity that inspired it, wasn’t enough. Rather than offering an indictment of the slave system to the royal officials who’d hired them, the surgeons focused on technical concerns. “It is in the interest of commerce and humanity . . . to get slaves off their ships as soon as possible.”

Mordeille and the surgeons serve only as aperitifs. The bulk of this book surveys the life of Amasa Delano and the grueling journey the Africans of the Tryal made first by boat and, later, by being marched across the Andes. Chapter by chapter, Grandin brings these two sides closer. It’s a testament to Grandin’s power as a writer that Delano’s hardships and failings generate sympathy—even when compared with the stuff the Africans faced. Once we return to the Tryal as it floats into Delano’s view, it’s impossible to see all that happens as some isolated episode. It’s more like the inevitable confrontation of many desperate people. Ocean currents, and the crush of market forces, have brought them all together.

I can’t say enough good things about The Empire of Necessity. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a decade. It should be essential reading not just for those interested in the African slave trade, but for anyone hoping to understand the commercial enterprise that built North and South America. The sprawling commerce in slaves also supplied Europe with the retirement money it’s been living on for more than a century.

It’s difficult to put down this book and blithely ignore the self-serving contra- dictions in my own life. I’m the son of an African immigrant, raised in a working- class family, and that’s made me sympathetic to underdogs. Underdogs are always the battered champions in my novels. That’s one of the aspects of my work that garners praise. And yet now I’m also an upper-middle-class husband and father with two Ivy League degrees. When I read about the conditions of Chinese workers in Apple factories, I feel the same repulsion as when I read about the treatment of sea elephants and slaves in The Empire of Necessity. But I’d still like to buy myself an iPad mini for Christmas. If they made them cheap enough, I’d buy two.

Victor LaValle’s novel The Devil in Silver (Spiegel & Grau, 2012) has recently been published in paperback.