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

The Empire of Necessity; Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin. Picador, 2015, paper.

In 1817 Amasa Delano, a New Englander involved in the seal skin trade, published an account of his years at sea, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. His ship, a schooner, was called the Perseverance; New Englanders named their ships after virtues. The Perseverance sailed up and down the “sealing archipelago” that stretched along the Pacific side of Spanish America. Most of the catch supplied the Chinese market, in such quantities that the ups and downs of the Chinese market could affect both demand and price.


The author of this interesting book, Greg Grandin, has used Narrative of Voyages and Travels as his primary source, but he includes other travel narratives and the rich administrative archive of the Spanish New World. Mostly the book is about the seal trade, but Delano was also involved in the “middle passage,” the transport of West Africans to New World slavery.


Perhaps as many as ten million West Africans were brought to the New World on slave ships between 1514 and 1866. The reader sails on those slave ships and examines a particular phenomenon, slave uprisings. Between the early 1500s and 1860s there were, Grandin claims, 493 slave revolts. Most of them failed; the slaves were killed in the shipboard fight, or tossed overboard, or committed suicide by jumping into the sea.


It happened that the Perseverance came upon a slave ship, the Tryal, which appeared to be in distress. Maritime law required an assist to a ship in distress, though the decision to do so was rarely humanitarian only. Delano sent a boarding party, but they decided that there was nothing amiss and left the ship. Only to have the captain of the Tryal, Benito Cerraňo, leapt into their dinghy. He explained that the slaves on his ship had seized control and orchestrated a subterfuge in which the crew had agreed to participate in return for their lives. Cerraňo was the real world inspiration for the character of a similar name in Herman Melville’s short novel “The Bell-Tower.”


The author describes the squalor of the slave quarters below deck. The weeks at sea resulted in high death rates caused by disease: scurvy, consumption, dropsy, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid fever, and gonorrhea. Rarely do historians of the Atlantic slave trade mention that these illnesses were also aggravated by displacement, melancholia, and mourning.



It is estimated that 10% of Africans from the Niger River Valley were Moslem. They were often not allowed to face east to prey. Islam justified resistance against oppressive owners; Christianity never did.  Did this make Moslems from West Africa more likely to revolt?


In addition to African slavery, we meet up with other shades of servitude. The liberty of the sailors on Delano’s Perseverance and the Tryal that he commandeered was limited by their agreements with the ship owner and its captain. Sailors on these ships of sail experienced one of the last vestiges of the Old Regime’s unmitigated tyranny. Many of these forms of servitude were the result of desperate poverty.


There is also some interesting time-traveling in The Empire of Necessity. We visit Buenos Aires and Montevideo, boomtowns on the Río de la Plate. We accompany shackled slaves as they are marched across the Argentine Pampas and then over the rugged Andes. The city of Mendoza, which was on this land route to the Pacific via Santiago. On to Lima which Grandin describes as the great imperial capital of Spanish America. We catch glimpses of the islands on which the seal rockeries were located. They were also home to castaways with whom ship captains replaced depleted crews and to escaped slaves.


Grandin makes a strong case for the argument that the slave trade is important to the origins of industrial capitalism. We know the story of industrial development in Liverpool and Manchester based on slave-produced cotton in the American South. Factories in Montevideo and Buenos Aires were also centers of this emerging industrial economy, producing leather goods analogous to the cotton textile trade in England. Here is another arena in which capitalism evolved out of the practice of purchasing stock in a trading or slaving venture. The author even claims that slavery was the engine of Spanish America’s capitalist development.


Greg Grandin has woven together an array of stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth- century Atlantic world when it was the center of a trade in commodities as well as the West African slaves.




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