IMAGINE HERMAN MELVILLE reading Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (published this month by Metropolitan Books). Castigated and eventually ignored in his own lifetime, Melville would have to be amazed and thrilled that, in the second decade of the 21st century, one of America’s most distinguished historians would be using his 1855 novella Benito Cereno as the main vehicle to explore the history of slavery and the waves of revolution sweeping through the Western Hemisphere in the early 19th century. Grandin even takes the title of his book from Melville’s epigraph to “The Bell-Tower,” published two months before Benito Cereno and foreshadowing the novella’s bleak prophecy for the US slave republic. In Grandin’s appalling vision of the human and natural devastation perpetrated by Europeans and Americans, Melville could find validation of his own denunciations of imperialism and his declaration that “the white civilized man” is “the most ferocious animal on earth.” What a gratifying vindication, especially since that declaration and all the other anti-imperialist and antiracist passages in Typee, his first book, were censored out of every American edition published during his lifetime. He would find, perhaps to his surprise, that this 21st century historian not only shares but also can openly state much of what he was trying to express throughout his writing career, despite the increasingly vicious attacks that forced him to conceal many of his later and most profound messages under layers of trickery and masquerade, “directly calculated to deceive — egregiously deceive — the superficial skimmer of pages,” as he once put it.
Then imagine Grandin’s response when he first read Benito Cereno. The image I get reminds me a bit of “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.” As he told a Publishers Weekly interviewer, Grandin had previously read only two of Melville’s works — Moby-Dick and “Bartleby” — “so this drew me deeper into his world.” And deep he plunges, through Melville’s novella, into the strange real-life story that was Melville’s source, and down to that wild heaving floor of our own epoch: the Age of Revolution.
Melville’s source was Chapter XVIII of Amasa Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817), and it tells the basic story: Delano, a Yankee sea captain frantically hunting seals and sea elephants off the coast of Chile in 1805, spied an approaching ship, the Tryal, in apparent distress, while his own ship, the Perseverance, lay at anchor off the small uninhabited island of Santa Maria. He had crewmen row him in a boat laden with water and food to the strange vessel, and then stayed on board while his men took the boat back to the Perseverance. The Tryal, it turned out, was a Spanish slave ship. From around seven in the morning until after four in the afternoon, Captain Delano stayed on the slaver, alone for these nine hours with the African slaves and the Spanish captain and crew. He encountered several mysteries and then — serious spoiler alert! If you have not read Benito Cereno, stop reading my words, and, without delay, read this masterpiece so you won’t be deprived of one of the literary experiences of a lifetime. — discovers that the slaves had seized the ship and killed their owner, Alejandro de Aranda. (Delano spells it Alexandro Aranda.) They were all playing roles for Delano, and they had also forced the Spanish crew and Captain Benito Cerreño (Delano recorded his name as Cereno) to play roles, all directly calculated to deceive — egregiously deceive — the American. They succeeded brilliantly. Only when Captain Cerreño leapt into Delano’s departing boat and shrieked the truth did the Yankee captain comprehend the situation. Then he ordered his crew to seize the Spanish vessel and re-enslave the Africans, which they did with brutal and gory violence.
An intriguing mystery lurks inside Delano’s matter-of-fact narrative: how could the slaves so thoroughly deceive this worldly wise ship captain throughout his daylong stay on the ship? Melville’s answer lies in the main fictions he adds to Delano’s account. He conjectures that the slaves, in order to create convincing roles for all the actors, must have had an accurate knowledge of the Yankee captain’s images of both Africans and Spaniards. Thus he imagines the slaves creating the whole show right out of Delano’s racist imagination. Telling most of the tale from Delano’s point of view makes it, among other things, darkly and wickedly humorous. Any Delano-like readers who don’t get the grim jokes become part of the story’s subject.
Let me give just one example. After the behavior of a Spanish sailor arouses his suspicions, Delano is immediately distracted as his “attention” is “drawn to a slumbering negress, partly disclosed through the lacework of some rigging, lying, with youthful limbs carelessly disposed.” Whatever her spread legs permit the captain to see makes him quickly forget his suspicions, as he continues to ogle her exposed body through the “lacework”:
Sprawling at her lapped breasts was her wide-awake fawn, stark naked, its black little body half lifted from the deck, crosswise with its dam's; its hands, like two paws, clambering upon her; its mouth and nose ineffectually rooting to get at the mark; and meantime giving a vexatious half-grunt, blending with the composed snore of the negress.
The uncommon vigour of the child at length roused the mother. She started up, at a distance facing Captain Delano. But as if not at all concerned at the attitude in which she had been caught, delightedly she caught the child up, with maternal transports, covering it with kisses.
There's naked nature, now; pure tenderness and love, thought Captain Delano, well pleased.
Viewing the scene through his primitivist fantasy, Delano has no clue that the snore may be merely “composed” and takes in the whole show as just an unconscious opportunity for his delight and entertainment. Later we learn through court documents, reproduced by Melville with small but sometimes crucial changes from the documents the real Delano transcribed in his Narrative of Voyages,
that the negresses, of age, were knowing to the revolt, and testified themselves satisfied at the death of their master, Don Alexandro, that, had the negroes not restrained them, they would have tortured to death, instead of simply killing, the Spaniards slain by command of the negro Babo; that the negresses used their utmost influence to have the deponent [Benito Cereno] made away with; that, in the various acts of murder, they sang songs and danced — not gaily, but solemnly; and before the engagement with the boats, as well as during the action, they sang melancholy songs to the negroes, and that this melancholy tone was more inflaming than a different one would have been.
Much of the substance and verbiage of this passage comes directly from Delano’s transcription, but Melville has expanded and developed the singing. The one element that is solely his invention is: “had the negroes not restrained them, they would have tortured to death, instead of simply killing, the Spaniards.” Why would the women, at least as Melville imagined them, want to torture their captors? We’ll come back to this question.
Grandin also investigates the mystery of Delano’s blindness to the reality masked by the slaves’ elaborate theater, but he is not a fiction writer, though he certainly writes with the skills of a fine novelist. With herculean archival research, he traces the backstory of each of the main participants in Delano’s narrative: the owner of the slaves, the Spanish captain, the Yankee captain, and those slaves whose paths to the fateful revolt can be tracked or at least surmised. Then Grandin extends their stories beyond the revolt to the ends of their lives.
Each life story leads through the explosive contradictions of the Age of Revolution, when the Industrial Revolution unleashed three earthshaking political revolutions, the American, the French, and the Haitian, as well as the force that was to reshape human relations around the planet — that juggernaut of industrial capitalism, manifest globally as modern imperialism. Central to all these revolutions and their contradictions was a vortex swirling around redefinitions of freedom and necessity. And at the center of all was the enslavement of Africans.
We here have three narratives emerging from the revolt of the slaves on that Spanish ship. In Amasa Delano’s chapter, the ringleader of the uprising was a Senegalese named Babo, while his son Mure, who spoke Spanish, played the role of a faithful obedient servant of Benito Cereno, staying by his side all day to make the Spanish captain stick to his role and to manipulate the American captain. Melville rolls the father and son into a single character, Babo, a brilliant trickster and impresario who directs the whole show.
Grandin tracks the actual lives of Babo and his son, whose name was really Mori. Their story begins as a Liverpool slave ship sails from Nigeria with a cargo of about 400 slaves. The British vessel is seized by a French privateer under the command of “Citoyen” Mordeille, a buccaneer who incarnated some of the wild contradictions of his age. Mordeille, a “seafaring Jacobin” whose multiracial crew wore red sashes and hoisted sails to the beat of revolutionary chanteys, was dedicated to destroying the British monarchy, establishing global liberty and equality, and profiteering in the slave trade.
Just as for Mordeille, liberty and freedom meant, for Spain’s far-flung colonies, as well as for the US republic, the freedom to engage in unfettered trade and the liberty to buy and sell the African slaves whose fettered labor would create the wealth of the so-called New World. Grandin brings to stunning life what that meant in the vast slave camps and the industrial explosion in the sister cities of Montevideo and Buenos Aires along the banks of the Rio de la Plata.
Here we encounter the first of several stark visions of the rapacious new industries, the slaughterhouses of Buenos Aires, where we witness the gruesome “birth of Argentina’s modern meatpacking industry.” The stench and gore and ruthless exploitation make me think of The Jungle, published almost precisely 100 years later. But black people appear in The Jungle only as scab workers called in to break a strike; here African slaves do most of the filthiest and most life-destroying work. And what drives these early 19th-century slaughterhouses is “the demand for salted meat to feed slaves and the use of hides and tallow to buy slaves.”
Grandin argues that Babo and Mori may very well have been on that Liverpool slaver that Mordeille brought into Montevideo in January 1804. If not, they were on another vessel making a similar 5,000-mile Middle Passage, about the same time, to either Montevideo or Buenos Aires. Grandin’s archival research reveals that Babo and his son, along with 62 other slaves in Buenos Aires, were sold in April to Alejandro de Aranda, a young man looking to make a quick kill in the booming slave trade. Slaves were then in high demand in Spain’s Pacific coast colonies, and the colonists were dismantling the empire’s restrictions on intercolonial trade. Mordeille took many of his seized African slaves around Cape Horn to Lima, but this was an expensive route, three times the cost of a semi-illegal overland route. So Aranda decided to join a long wagon train and march his slaves overland, across the vast pampas and the formidable Andes Mountains.
In a marvelous recreation of this terrifying journey, Grandin introduces the fact that Babo and Mori, like many African slaves, were educated Muslims, and he convincingly suggests the religious dimensions of their experience as they traversed these alien landscapes under southern skies. In Valparaíso, Aranda loads his slaves on Benito Cerreño’s ship, once a Yankee schooner, and still with its original name, Tryal. They are bound for Lima, where Aranda intends to sell his slaves for a fat profit.
December 22, five days out from Valparaíso, was Laylat al-Qadr, “The Night of Power,” the holiest of days in the holy month of Ramadan. Three hours before sunrise, the African slaves, led by Babo and Mori, rose up and seized the ship. In January, the Africans killed their owner, Aranda, and threw his body overboard. On February 20, 1805, Captain Amasa Delano peered through his spyglass at this “strange ship” rounding the island of Santa Maria.
Delano was engaged in one of the most predatory industries unleashed, empowered, and driven by industrial capitalism, the unrestrained massacre of countless millions of seals and sea elephants. Sea elephants, some 20 feet tall, were hunted for their oil and sometimes tortured for the amusement of their killers. A prize target was a species of Pacific fur seal, whose skins were turned into “capes, coats, muffs, and mittens for ladies and belts, sashes, wallets, and waistcoats for gentlemen.” Grandin gives us pages of sickening and heart-wrenching descriptions of the slaughter and skinning of adults and pups, whose bodies, sometimes living, were left to rot, fester, and stink on the islands and beaches of the Pacific. From the carnage of his first sealing voyage, Delano was able to bring hundreds of thousands of sealskins to Canton.
But all this bloody rapacity soon led to scarcity, as some species were actually driven to extinction. This in turn led to desperate fights among the sealers, and mutinies and large-scale desertions by half-starving crews, who were whipped to work for a share of non-existent profits. Grandin tells how “the new language of rights” from the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions inspired the sailors to rebel. Small islands strewn around the Pacific became societies of deserters, with at least one republic of deserters drawing up a constitution that guaranteed mutual sharing and required everyone to give a portion of his share to the sick or disabled. Melville, himself a deserter from one whaleship and participant in a mutiny on another, would appreciate this part, despite his own bleak vision of such outlaw island societies in “The Encantadas.”
Like Mordeille, Delano was an incarnation of the contradictions of his age. He was a staunch republican and democrat who believed that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. He was also a despotic captain who enslaved his sailors and whipped them mercilessly for the slightest perceived infraction, forcing many to desert. Just before the Tryal appeared, Grandin notes that “his own men were on the brink of mutiny.” Although he was philosophically opposed to black chattel slavery, he leapt at the chance to seize a ship full of slaves who had freed themselves, a ship he refers to in the table of contents of his Narrative of Voyages as “our prize.”
Melville made only one major change in the plot of Delano’s narrative: he deleted the protracted legal feud between Delano and “Cereno” over who was entitled to the proceeds from the sale of the ship and its cargo, including the surviving slaves. Benito Cereno ends instead with Cereno retiring to a monastery and dying within months. This would leave Delano the presumptive owner of his “prize” — the ship and the slaves.
Grandin tells Cerreño’s actual fate, which is as pregnant with ironic meaning as the fate that Melville gives him. He married a rich widow and thus becomes the owner of a large plantation and 236 slaves, not far from Lima. But soon came the revolutionary wars waged by Spain’s New World colonies, wars influenced by both the American and Haitian Revolutions. The Revolutionary Army of the Andes, made up largely of freed slaves, swept from Argentina into Chile, and then, joined by thousands of rebelling Chilean slaves, manned a flotilla that, following the route of Babo and Mori, sailed from Valparaíso toward Lima, where, joined now by more masses of freed slaves, they helped liberate Peru. Just before the onrushing revolutionary forces reached his plantation, Cerreño fled.
By 1855, the date of Benito Cereno’s publication, slavery had been outlawed in all the American republics that had broken free from the Spanish empire. But in the United States, slavery was rapidly expanding. Grandin notes that between 1805, when Delano boarded the Tryal, and 1855, the number of US slaves had quadrupled from one to four million. Thanks to the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, much of the free soil of Mexico (which had abolished slavery in 1829) as well as parts of the Midwest had been turned into slave territory or territory where freedom meant the freedom to fight for the right to become a slaveholding state.
Although Melville zooms in to focus on the slave rebellion, his frame of historical reference is actually wider than Grandin’s. Buffeted by gusts from the approaching storm of the Civil War, he was writing as a prophet, not unlike the biblical prophets. The climax of Benito Cereno comes with the sibylline words: “past, present, and future seem one.” He changes the name of the Spanish ship to the San Dominick, thus evoking the history of Santo Domingo, the island where Columbus “discovered” America, then the capital of Spain’s New World empire and the site of the first large-scale importation of African slaves into the Western Hemisphere, and, just before Delano’s adventure, the locale of the Haitian Revolution, which established in 1804 the first black republic in the hemisphere, thus inspiring slave revolts throughout the Americas (possibly including the one on the Tryal) while terrifying slave owners all the way up through the United States. Melville transforms the schooner Tryal into a decaying galleon of the Spanish empire, originally sailing behind a figurehead of “the image of Christopher Colon, the discoverer of the New World,” a figurehead that the slaves replace with the shrouded skeleton of Aranda above the ominous words, “Seguid vuestro jefe” — “Follow your leader.” When the Yankee captain conquers this floating symbol of the collapsing Spanish slave empire, these words become the early handwriting on the wall for the then-expanding US empire.
From now on, no serious student of Benito Cereno will be able to ignore Greg Grandin’s The Empire of Necessity, with its indispensable research and profoundly insightful analysis of the lives of the actual participants in the event and the history of which they were a part. But not everyone will be entirely satisfied with Grandin’s reading of the novella or his understanding of its place in Melville’s philosophy and oeuvre.
The problem comes from Grandin’s belief that Melville “tended to treat bondage as a metaphysical problem,” expressed in Ishmael’s challenge “Who ain’t a slave?” There was only “one moment in Melville’s writing career,” he writes, “where he admitted that the chattel slavery of dark-skinned people from Africa, or descendants of Africans, was different.” That moment, according to Grandin, comes in Redburn (1849), when Redburn muses on the Liverpool statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson holding his foot on a shrouded skeleton that represents Death while lording over four captives chained to the pedestal: “These woe-begone figures of captives are emblematic of Nelson’s principal victories, but I never could look at their swarthy limbs and manacles, without being involuntarily reminded of four African slaves in the market-place.” Although Grandin goes on to give valuable augmentation to Redburn’s thoughts about the role of slavery in the prosperity of both Liverpool and the United States, he concludes: “Melville’s vision would soon pass and he would return to discussing slavery as a proxy for the human condition in general.” Curiously, he fails to note the reappearance of the imagery of this statue on both the bow and stern of the San Dominick, with the shrouded skeleton up front while aft is “the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolic devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.” When the masks are torn away from the daylong masquerade, we see Delano lording over Babo “while his right foot [...] ground the prostrate negro.”
Grandin, writing in an America with a black president, wishes Melville had been more outspoken about the horrors of slavery. But Melville tried that in Mardi, his first attempt at a major philosophic novel, published just before Redburn, and was harshly condemned for it. There, after noting that America’s “federal temple of freedom,” the nation’s Capitol, “was the handiwork of slaves,” he devoted an entire chapter to the horrors of America’s slavery. While the overseers mercilessly whip the collared slaves until they pour a mixture of “blood and sweat,” a thinly veiled caricature of John C. Calhoun calmly offers the reassurance that the slaves are mere animals without souls: “Their ancestors may have had; but their souls have been bred out of their descendants; as the instinct of scent is killed in pointers.” Black chattel slavery, Melville declares, is a sin:
a blot, foul as the crater-pool of hell; it puts out the sun at noon; it parches all fertility; and, conscience or no conscience — ere he die — let every master who wrenches bond-babe from mother, that the nipple tear; unwreathes the arms of sisters; or cuts the holy unity in twain; till apart fall man and wife, like one bleeding body cleft: — let that master thrice shrive his soul; take every sacrament; on his bended knees give up the ghost; — yet shall he die despairing; and live again, to die forever damned.
Mardi “spoils everything to the Southern reader” inveighed eminent South Carolina novelist William Gilmore Simms, and the novel was a financial sinkhole. Melville was quickly taught never to write like that if he wanted to make a living as an author.
Hence in his two greatest works about the past, present, and future roles of black chattel slavery in America — Benito Cereno and then The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, published in 1857, just two years later and just four years before the Civil War — Melville’s messages about slavery and empire cut much deeper and reverberate much longer than what he penned in Mardi, which was straightforward, undisguised abolitionism.
Grandin ascribes to Melville precisely the philosophic position and character that Melville unmasks and skewers in The Confidence-Man. When a gruff, rifle-toting eccentric Missourian confronts an avatar of the Confidence Man with a direct challenge — “You are an abolitionist, ain’t you?” — the Confidence Man responds:
As to that, I cannot so readily answer. If by abolitionist you mean a zealot, I am none; but if you mean a man, who, being a man, feels for all men, slaves included, and by any lawful act, opposed to nobody’s interest, and therefore, rousing nobody’s enmity, would willingly abolish suffering (supposing it, in its degree, to exist) from among mankind, irrespective of color, then I am what you say.
The Missourian’s reply exposes the true character of all those democrats and republicans, who, like Amasa Delano, are complicit with slavery and empire, then and now:
Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but are useless for right.
Grandin never deals with Melville’s renaming Delano’s ship the Bachelor’s Delight. It is a name that explains the slave women’s desire to torture their enslavers to death. It is Melville’s way of indicting horrors of slavery beyond those he was permitted to name, much less describe. The original Bachelor’s Delight was a Danish ship carrying 60 female African slaves. It was captured by pirates, who then gave it the name by which it became infamous.
Melville sprinkles the story with other details that associate Delano himself with piracy. But why give the name of a notorious pirate vessel to the Yankee captain’s ship, the obvious allegorical symbol for America? Because the most notorious pirates in the 1850s were, in fact, the “filibusters,” a popular synonym for pirates — American adventurers who were organizing invasions designed to fulfill America’s “manifest destiny” by creating a US slave empire incorporating Cuba, Central America, the rest of Mexico, and Haiti, that black republic so menacing to America’s slavocracy.
Herman Melville’s views of slavery and empire were actually closer to Greg Grandin’s than Grandin seems to think they were. Perhaps I imagine Melville being thrilled and amazed by The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World simply because I am thrilled and amazed by this inventive, audacious, passionate volume, which has taught me so much about slavery, freedom, and deception in the New World. Even if it doesn’t plumb the depths of Melville’s deceptions, it certainly shows us new ways to grasp the relevance of Benito Cereno for our past and present, and, unfortunately, maybe our future.