Sin it is, no less… it puts out the sun at noon
– Herman Melville on slavery
Book review: The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin (Oneworld: Great Britain, Australia & New York 2014)
Review by Jo Manby
This gripping book reads like an adventure story subtly underpinned by historical detail. It centres on a mutiny on board the slave ship Tryal whereby all its crew were killed, bar one.
On board, slave-rebels initiated a 24-hour deception, fooling the unsuspecting Captain Amasa Delano into coming aboard the apparently troubled, becalmed ship with water and supplies, finally leading to the descent of Delano’s own crew into barbaric slaughter of the slave-rebels.
Author Greg Grandin explores the paradox that ‘the Age of Liberty… also was the Age of Slavery’, revealing the way the events on board the Tryal expose the other great ‘falsehood, on which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea not just that slaves were loyal and simpleminded but that they had no independent lives or thoughts’, or if they did, these were ‘subject to their master’s jurisdiction’ (p.8).
The first chapter of Part I, Hawks Abroad, refers to the abhorred press gangs who prowled ports such as, in this case, Liverpool; ‘once at sea sailors were subject to rule as feudal as the ancient régime and as brutal as the plantation. They could be flogged, tarred, feathered, keelhauled…’ (p.20).
Chapter 2 moves swiftly on to Montevideo, Río de la Plata’s slave port. Grandin traces the voyage of the pirate François-de-Paule Hippolyte Mordeille, alias Captain or Citoyen Manco, a one-armed French Jacobin, on board his ship, Hope. Mordeille captured another ship, the Neptune, which was holding around 400 Africans. Some of the Tryal rebels were among them. Grandin makes use of documents and records that have never previously been consulted to unfold these events. By this time, 1804, exponential numbers of African slaves were arriving, often contraband, smuggled into Spanish America by pirates like Mordeille.
Chapters 4 and 5 reveal many of the horrors of the Middle Passage. Many of the East Africans aboard the ship Joaquín, for example, were said to have died from a combination of problems: ‘intestinal illness aggravated by… nostalgia, melancholy, and brooding or mourning’. Two decades later, a greater insight had been achieved: ‘it was as if each time a doctor threw back a slave hatch to reveal the human-made horrors below, it became just a bit more difficult to blame mental illness on demons and personal failings’ (p.46).
Following the conclusion of each of Grandin’s sections is an Interlude. For Part I, it is entitled I Never Could Look at Death without a Shudder, a quote from Herman Melville, whose “other” masterpiece was Benito Cereno, based on the true story of the mutiny and deception on board the Tryal. Melville wrote of slavery, ‘sin it is, no less… it puts out the sun at noon’ (p.54).
Part II, A Loose Fish, turns to the personality of Amasa Delano, ‘truly a new man of the American Revolution’ who wanted to ‘learn the story of the world’ (p.69). Among many other adventures, he once paid a visit to the offices of the Spanish Inquisition; was the first to recount the oft-repeated story of the mutiny on the Bounty against Captain Bligh, and also the Dutch origins of South Africa’s apartheid system. He believed in ‘reason, free will, and man’s capacity for self-mastery… but what he found in the world was quite different, something that didn’t confirm his certainty but crushed it’ (p.71). Part II ends with discussion of literary perspectives such as 1960s African American writers and activists’ opinions of Benito Cereno as ‘subversive’ (p.92).
Part III deals with the horrific treks across the Andes with chained and shackled slaves; seal killing voyages; Part V, If God Wills, focuses on the revolt on board the Tryal and subsequent reversal of the Middle Passage. Part VI, Who Aint A Slave? brings us to the confrontation of Delano’s ship Perseverance with the mutinous Tryal and the ensuing four-hour battle between the crews.
Delano’s power was ‘not based on the demagogic pull of charisma but the everyday pressures involved in controlling labor and converting diminishing natural resources into marketable items’; pressurised by these circumstances, Delano ‘rallies men to the chase, not of a white whale [as in Melville’s Moby Dick] but of black rebels’ (p.235).
Finally, Part VII, General Average, reveals the disgraceful Delano still desperately attempting to reap monetary rewards from the experience. We are left with a sketch of his meagre estate: ‘one threadbare hammock, assessed at fifty cents, an old pine writing desk…. And seven hundred copies of A Narrative of Voyages and Travels’: the relics of one man’s discreditable life.