Book Review: 'The Empire of Necessity'

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The Empire of Necessity


The Captain Held Captive

Herman Melville's 1855 novella " Benito Cereno, " based on the true story of an early-19th-century slave revolt on a Spanish ship off the coast of Chile, reveals the bleak side of race relations with unmatched subtlety: The reader doesn't realize until the very end that the ship's captain is in fact now the captive. In his engaging, richly informed "The Empire of Necessity," Greg Grandin probes the historical background of Melville's classic work and shows that the complexities of slavery, dramatized so masterfully by Melville, reflected economic and social forces that channeled humanity's highest ideals toward oppression and cruelty.

The age of liberty, which brought the American, French and Haitian revolutions, was also the age of slavery. Mr. Grandin explores many dimensions of this tragic paradox. The era's devotion to liberty unleashed freer trade, including the commerce in Africans who were captured in their homeland, imprisoned in ships and carried to the Americas, where they were sold into slavery. The European powers competed with one another in the trans-Atlantic shipment of goods, including enslaved blacks. The American South profited immensely from slavery, and, Mr. Grandin reminds us, so did New England, which thrived on the triangle trade of rum, slaves and tropical products, as did Spanish-American countries like Argentina and Chile. Slavery, as Mr. Grandin writes, was the flywheel on which the region's market revolution turned.

The author fills in the background of Melville's tale with an illuminating description of Spanish America's involvement in slavery. Imported Africans were put to work on inland plantations or in coastal towns, or sold to other nations. Mr. Grandin provides a vivid portrait of Alejandro de Aranda, a Spanish-descended merchant in the Argentine province of Mendoza, who in April 1804 purchased 64 blacks in Buenos Aires and took them, along with other slaves, hundreds of miles westward, across the pampas and the Andes, with the aim of shipping them north from Valparaiso to Lima, where he planned to sell them. Mr. Grandin re-creates the torment of these overland marches, on which the blacks were transported over the vast plains in "hide-covered, cane-ribbed, constantly rocking wagons" and then over the mountains "on foot, linked together with neck chokers."

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