Newspaper article International New York Times

Vengeful Fury after a Journey of Despair

Newspaper article International New York Times

Vengeful Fury after a Journey of Despair

Article excerpt

In "The Empire of Necessity" Greg Grandin illuminates the slave industry through the tale of one particularly star-crossed group of captives.

The Empire of Necessity. Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World. By Greg Grandin. Illustrated. 360 pages. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $30.

Between the early 16th century and the middle of the 19th, more than 12 million human beings were shipped against their will from Africa to the New World and sold into slavery. An untold number died at different stages of the journey -- overland in Africa, during the "middle passage" at sea or soon after arrival. Among those who perished, most died of disease, some by suicide and still others from wounds or execution following failed revolts.

For nearly four centuries, as Greg Grandin writes in his powerful new book, slavery was the "flywheel" that drove the global development of everything from trade and insurance to technology, religion and medicine. To read "The Empire of Necessity" is to get a sort of revolving scan from the center of the wheel. What we see is an endless sequence of human transactions -- the production and exchange of meat, sugar, rice, cotton, tobacco, gold, among other things -- all connected, through slavery, by linkages whose full extent cannot be discerned from any point along the way. Slaves, Mr. Grandin writes, "were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit (used to secure loans), property, commodities and capital."

Mr. Grandin's kaleidoscopic technique gives his book a certain pastiche quality (many years and miles are silently traversed in the breaks between chapters), but through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum. Beginning in 1804 with their embarkation from West Africa, he follows a particular group of slaves to a British slave ship until it is seized in the name of "liberty, equality and fraternity" by a French pirate, who exercised his liberty by selling them to a buyer in Buenos Aires.

Then came a forced march across the "never-ending blanket of grass" of the Argentine pampas. Next was the hard climb into the Andes, where the weak and sick had their limbs or heads cut off in order to facilitate removal of shackles and halters for future use, their mutilated bodies left to nonhuman predators along the trail. Upon arrival in Valparaiso, survivors were taken aboard the slave ship Tryal, bound for Lima, under the command of a Spaniard named Benito Cerreno.

Into this harrowing account, Mr. Grandin, the author of "Fordlandia," intersperses sections about two New Englanders who seem at first disconnected from the story but who were destined to intersect with the lives -- and deaths -- of the slaves, and thereby with each other. …

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