A window into the world 
of the slave trade

The Empire of Necessity:

Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

Shortly after sunrise on February 20, 1805, near an uninhabited island in the South Pacific off the coast of Chile, the captains of two cargo ships eyed each other’s vessels cautiously. One of them, a sealing ship called the Perseverance, looked to be in good condition, if a bit worn from years of service. The other, a slaving ship known as the Tryal, approached slowly, limping, sails slackened, appearing to be in distress. 

The Tryal seemed to be captained by Spaniard Benito Cereño and sailed by a handful of weathered sailors who spoke of hardship and sickness at sea. On deck stood nearly one hundred slaves bound to be sold in the slave markets along South America’s western coast. But all was not as it seemed. 

By the time the Tryal approached the Perseverance, the once-enslaved West Africans had been in control of the ship for fifty-three days after they staged a successful, but bloody, uprising on the Muslim Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr. Most of the ship’s crew had been killed in the revolt; only the captain and a few men were left alive with an order to turn the boat around and bring the West Africans back to Senegal. 

As the Perseverance approached, the Spaniards ofthe Tryal were nothing more than hostages on their own ship, bid to pretend all was normal by their West African captors in order to obtain a donation of badly needed supplies. The ploy nearly worked, until the end of the day. As the crew of the Perseverance took their leave, Benito Cereño made a final bid for freedom, jumping from the Tryal into the ocean below and revealing the pretense. 

American historian and New York University professor Greg Grandin has now brought the Tryal’s story out of the shadows of history and used it as a basis to write his newest book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Based on meticulous research, The Empire of Necessity reads more like a novel than a typical history book. It opens with an exciting account of the last day of freedom for the West Africans on board the Tryal and then doubles back to tell the intricate and zigzagging history of how all of the characters—slavers, traders, sealers, West Africans, Spaniards, and Americans alike—came to be on board the Tryal that day in 1805. 

Grandin follows the story from the original sale of the West Africans to an English slaver to their final days of life. The Englishman lost the slaves during the journey across the Atlantic to a French pirate, well versed in the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty and fraternity but blind to the paradox created by chattel slavery in this new world of individual freedom. The slaves were sold again in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. From Buenos Aires many were marched across the seemingly endless Argentine Pampas, up the craggy peaks of the Andes, and down into Chile where they were sold yet again as part of an intricate market system. Many were then loaded onto yet another ship, headed for yet another slave market. Ten days later, the slaves revolted on board the Tryal.

Alongside their story, Grandin begins what at first appears to be an unrelated story about a ship captain, Amasa Delano. Delano, a New Englander who opposed slavery, went into the sealing business with the innocent goals of supporting his family and learning about the world. Yet as business dwindled and markets were flooded with sealskins, Delano became more and more desperate, until he happened upon the Tryal. Debt and financial desperation led him to put aside qualms about slavery when he recaptured the West Africans for a reward. 

As Grandin weaves this intricate web of history, looking at the story of the Tryal as something of a microcosm of the times, he is able to draw out broader historical themes to show how slavery underwrote every part of the developing capitalist economy in the Americas. In many cases, expansion of slavery concentrated and intensified the manufacturing process. Production and sales of sugarcane, rum, hides, meat, salt, and other commodities were transactions bound up in various ways with the slave trade. 

For example, Grandin takes a detour during one chapter to look at the story of Juan Nonell, the man who sold some of the West Africans of the Tryal to slaver Alejandro de Aranda in a Buenos Aires slave market. Nonell used the revenue from that sale, and many others like it, to invest in his ranching and shipping operations. Through this process he became a successful player in the regional skin trade, sending thousands of hides to Liverpool. In addition to buying and selling slaves wholesale, he also used them to help slaughter animals and process the hides, in a factory-style mode of production. 

Slaves, writes Grandin, “were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities and capital making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value.”

The story of the Tryal takes place against the backdrop of revolutionary ideas of individual freedom and liberty made popular by the American and French Revolutions. Yet the ideals of freedom only applied to a certain section of society. Indeed, Grandin shows that the liberalization of trade that accompanied this freedom movement dramatically increased the number of Africans brought to the Americas to be sold. The freedom of some led to the increased bondage of many others—a sickening irony exposed and developed throughout the book.

To help him explore this idea philosophically, Grandin draws on the literary works of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick and the lesser known novel Benito Cereno, a fictional story based closely on the story of the Tryal. Melville considers slavery mostly in a metaphysical sense, saying that humans, by definition, are all enslaved by something—wages, markets, religions, desires, or actually bound by chains. He suggests that sometimes those bound in chains are actually more free than others bound in a more metaphysical sense, an idea shared by many at the time.

Given the depth to which all issues surrounding slavery are explored—economically, philosophically, morally, and historically—Empire of Necessity will appeal to more than just academic historians. It will appeal to the English teacher interested in nineteenth-century literature; to the activist hoping to understand the past in order to understand the present and possible future; and to the casual reader looking for nothing more than an exciting story with well-developed characters. 

Empire of Necessity is a well-researched, page-turning, must-read book that shows the stark and brutal reality of slavery in the “New World” and its crucial role in developing capitalism in the Americas.  

Issue #84

June 2012

The struggle against The New Jim Crow

An interview with Michelle Alexander
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