Continental Drift: how the slave trade turned Jacobins into mercenaries

Victor LaValle in Bookforum:

Article00_largeAmasa 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. 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.

…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.

More here. (Note: One post throughout February will be dedicated to Black History Month.)