Magazine article The Progressive

Hidden History of Slavery

Magazine article The Progressive

Hidden History of Slavery

Article excerpt

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

By Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. 360pages. $30.


"Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance. ... Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations. "--Karl Marx's letter to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, December 28, 1846

Throughout the years, I've read a lot of books on enslavement to find my personal and historical bearing. For me, The Empire of Necessity fits right in along with Hugh Thomas's The Slave Trade, James Michener's Caribbean, and C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins. New York University Professor Greg Grandin's work ably grasps the scale, depravity, economy, rationale, and irrationality of the international "free trade" of people.

The title comes from the epigraph to Herman Melville's short story "The Bell Tower." Grandin also pivots off of Melville's Benito Cereno, published in 1855, six years before the start of the Civil War. It tells the tale of a rebellion of enslaved West Africans onboard the slave ship Tryal off the west coast of South America. They kill the crew and the slaver who planned to sell them, seize the ship, and take the captain hostage.

From that story, based on fact, Grandin takes the reader back to the early nineteenth-century slave trade in and around South America. He shows how the colonial powers and a newly independent United States were woven into the immoral cloth of slavery. Grandin exposes the horrid "central paradox" of the "Age of Liberty" in the United States and "liberte, egalite, fraternite" in France that coincided with "the Age of Slavery." The Spanish Crown actually wanted "mas libertad, mas comercio libre de negros": more liberty, more free trade of blacks.

Grandin lays out the core of his book:

Benito Cereno "tells the story of Amasa Delano, a New England sea captain who, in the South Pacific, spends all day on a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans who he thinks are slaves. They aren't. Unbeknown to Delano, they had earlier risen up, slaughtered most of the crew, and demanded that the captain, Benito Cereno, return them home to Senegal. After Delano boards the ship (to offer his assistance), the West Africans keep their rebellion a secret by acting as if they are still slaves. Their leader, a man named Babo, pretends to be Cereno's loyal servant, while actually keeping a close eye on him.

"Delano thinks Cereno is in charge. As the day progresses, Delano grows increasingly obsessed with Babo and the seeming affection with which the West African cares for the Spanish captain. The New Englander, liberal in his sentiments and opposed to slavery as a matter of course, fantasizes about being waited on by such a devoted and cheerful body servant.

"Delano believes himself a free man, and he defines his freedom in opposition to the smiling, open-faced Babo, who he presumes has no interior life, no ideas or interests of his own. Delano sees what he wants to see. But when Delano ultimately discovers the truth--that Babo, in fact, is the one exercising masterly discipline over his inner thoughts, and that it is Delano who is enslaved to his illusion--he responds with savage violence."

Kudos to Grandin for writing about the obvious. Africans in his story have an inner self, as opposed to being just chattel or animals. Racists would like to have history written to say that the Africans who were brought to the New World were saved or better off. …

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