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The Empire of Necessity

Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

by Greg Grandin

Hardcover, 360 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $30 |


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Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World
Greg Grandin

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The author of Fordlandia documents an extraordinary early 19th-century event that inspired Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, tracing the cultural, economic and religious clashes that occurred aboard a distressed Spanish ship of West African pirates.

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On This Spanish Slave Ship, Nothing Was As It Seemed

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Empire Of Necessity


Wednesday, February 20, 1805, shortly after sunrise, in the South Pacific

Captain Amasa Delano was lying awake in his cot when his deck officer came to tell him that a vessel had been spotted coming round the southern head of Santa Maria, a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Chile. By the time Delano had dressed and come topside the "strange ship," as he later described it, had slackened its sails and was now drifting with the wind toward an underwater ledge. To his puzzlement, it flew no flag. It looked to be in want and, if it drew closer to the shallows, in danger. Delano hastily had water, pumpkins, and fresh fish loaded in a boat. He then ordered it hoisted down and went on board.

The weather that morning was thick and breezy but the sun rose to reveal a calm bay. The other side of the island, from where the mysterious ship had appeared, was rough. Endless breakers, sharp-toothed underwater reefs, and steep rock-faced cliffs made its coastline unapproachable, providing sanctuaries for the seals that elsewhere had been hunted to near extinction. But the island's east, where the Perseverance harbored, was peaceful, the Southern Hemisphere's waning summer offering a harmony of lulling earth tones, brown, rich dirt, green sea, and cloudless blue skies. High bluffs blanketed by wild red thistles shielded a sandy, safe haven used by sealers and whalers to socialize, pass mailbags to ships bound home, and replenish wood and water.

As he came closer, Delano could see the ship's name, the Tryal, painted in English in faded white letters along its bow. He could also see that its deck was full of black-skinned people, who looked to be slaves. And when he climbed on board, the alabaster-skinned New Englander discovered himself surrounded by scores of Africans and a handful of Spanish and mulatto sailors telling their "stories" and sharing their "grievances" in a babel of languages.

They spoke in Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani, and Spanish, a rush of words indecipherable in its details but soothing to Delano in its generalities. Earlier, as his men rowed toward the ship, he could see that its sails were tattered. What should have been an orderly web of rigging and tackle was a wooly mash. Its hull, calcified, moss covered, and pulling a long trail of sea grass, gave off a greenish tint. But he knew it was a common pirates' ploy to make ships appear distressed in order to lure victims on board. Napoleon had just crowned himself emperor of the French, Madrid and Paris were at war with London, and privateers were raiding merchant ships at will, even in the distant South Pacific. Now, though, hollow cheeks and frantic eyes confirmed that the misery was real, turning Delano's fears into "feelings of pity."

Amasa Delano was on board the Tryal for about nine hours, from around seven in the morning to a little after four in the afternoon. Having sent his away team back to the island to fill the Tryal's casks with water, he spent most of the day alone among its voyagers, talking with its captain, helping to distribute the food and water he had brought with him, and securing the ship so it didn't drift. Delano, a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from a respected shipbuilding and fishing family on the Massachusetts coast, was an experienced mariner in the middle of his third sail around the world. Yet he couldn't see that it was the Tryal's slaves, and not the man who introduced himself as its master, who were in command.

Led by an older man named Babo and his son Mori, the West Africans had seized control of the Tryal nearly two months earlier and executed most of its crew and passengers, along with the slave trader who was taking them to Lima. They then ordered Benito Cerreno, the vessel's owner and captain, to sail them to Senegal. Cerreno stalled, afraid of rounding Cape Horn with only a handful of sailors and a ship full of mutinous slaves. He cruised first up and then down the Chilean coast, before running into Delano's Perseverance. The slaves could have fought or fled. Instead, Babo came up with a plan. The West Africans let Delano come on board and they acted as if they were still slaves. Mori stayed at Cerreno's side and feigned to be a humble and devoted servant. Cerreno pretended he was still in charge, making up a story about storms, doldrums, and fevers to account for the state of his ship and the absence of any officer besides himself.

Delano didn't know what to make of Cerreno. He remained uneasy around him, even after he had convinced himself that he wasn't a brigand. Delano mistook Cerreno's vacant stare — the effect of hunger and thirst and of having lived for almost two months under a death threat, after having witnessed most of his crew being executed — for disdain, as if the aristocratic-looking Spaniard, dressed in a velvet jacket and loosely fitting black pants, thought himself too good to converse with a pea-coated New Englander. The West Africans, especially the women, also made Delano uncomfortable, though he couldn't say why. There were nearly thirty females on board, among them older women, young girls, and about nine mothers with suckling infants. Once the food and water had been doled out, the women took their babies and gathered together in the stern, where they began to sing a slow dirge to a tune Delano didn't recognize. Nor did he understand the words, though the song had the opposite effect on him than did the soothing mix of languages that had welcomed his arrival.

Then there was Cerreno's servant, Mori, who never left his master's side. When the two captains went below deck, Mori followed. When Delano asked Cerreno to send the slave away so they could have a word alone, the Spaniard refused. The West African was his "confidant" and "companion," he insisted, and Delano could speak freely in front of him. Mori was, Cerreno said, "captain of the slaves." At first, Delano was amused by the attentiveness Mori paid to his master's needs. He started, though, to resent him, vaguely blaming the black man for the unease he had felt toward Cerreno. Delano became fixated on the slave. Mori, he later wrote, "excited my wonder." Other West Africans, including Mori's father, Babo, were also always around, "always listening." They seemed to anticipate Delano's thoughts, hovering around him like a school of pilot fish, moving him first this way, then that. "They all looked up to me as a benefactor," Delano wrote in his memoir, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, published in 1817, still, twelve years after the fact, confusing how he thought the rebels saw him that day with how they actually did see him.

Excerpted from The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, by Greg Grandin. Copyright 2014 by Greg Grandin. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.