Book Review: The Empire Of Necessity

The Empire Of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, by Greg Grandin

At first I thought this was going to be a large-scale treatment of the issue of slavery and freedom in the New World [1], a massive subject given the amount of material that would require. Instead, this is a book whose ambition lies in a different course, an accomplished and thought-provoking work of revisionist history that starts with a small incident and uncovers its repercussions and complications several steps back and forward, seeking to determine deeper relevance from what on the surface is a small incident among many. The end result is a work that is richly layered and deeply humane, but also highly troubling and gloomy, in that it reveals a double-mind at the basis of our existence that continues to haunt us as people and as societies. This is not, therefore, a lighthearted work in the least but rather one full of challenges that does not offer easy answers but rather the promise of moral and intellectual struggle.

The incident at the heart of this book is the ironic class between Amasa Delana, an antislavery New England sealer seeking economic freedom in a situation of ecological collapse, and a ship of rebellious slaves full of partly-Muslim West Africans led by people named Bobo and Mori who had killed most of the whites on the boat but had the boat’s pilot/owner Benito Cerreño piloting them to what they think is freedom. The end result for the slaves is the fate that awaited many of the whites on the boat, a gruesome death. That said, none of the people here make it out particularly happily, and the incident itself became the basis for a significant story by Herman Melville. The repercussions of this story include a look at Islam and Catholicism in Spain and West Africa, the roots of slavery and insurance law, piracy, the complex interply between free trade and human degradation, the literature of Melville and his contemporaries, the relationship between racial and social politics in the United States and Latin America, slave results, and a wide variety of other details. The author himself appears a bit too favorable to Islam, which is a notable flaw given the fact that Islam is one of the main forces of reactionary and inhumane behaviors in the contemporary world, but for the most part this is a thoughtful book that seeks both to provoke the reader into a deep examination of the tensions at the base of our world but also to point out the essential humanity of all of the people involved, regardless of their social position.

Truthfully, no one comes out of this story looking particularly heroic, not the slaves who rise up from their oppression only to become brutal murderers who feign servility in order to avoid their just desserts, not the Spanish and American merchants and judges who combine an interest in free trade (whether through smuggling or piracy or legal means) mainly as a way to be free of regulation from above even as they increasingly regulate those below them, not antislavery New England merchants whose wealth and profits are increasingly tied to environmental degradation as well as the slave trade, nor Spanish imperialists whose weakness in dealing with the French as well as restive colonials lead them to fail in their duties to protect the people they govern, nor in the ordinary men and women whose role in the slave trade appears to have been made for either social advancement or to try to keep from falling further down the social ladder, often with tragic results. Though no one looks particularly heroic, everyone here from the most wealthy merchant to the most humble slave appears to be human as well as caught in an immensely complicated situation that shows that slavery, or something like it, was essential for the freedom mankind has sought to grasp over the last 250 years of human history. We all must therefore grapple between the bind that increasing personal freedom often only increases our vicious oppression of others around us, while removing us from the comforting connections we have to others, connections that this book is quick to point out for many of the people within it.

Ultimately, this is a work that shows a great deal of attention to many aspects of history. In particular, I must single out the author for praise in terms of his dedication to archival work, as well as the subtle work of literary criticism in untangling the works of Herman Melville, Benito Cerreño, Neruda, Borges, and Delano (a distant relative of three US presidents, most notably FDR). I am not familiar with the author’s other works (he appears to be something of a specialist in obscure but interesting South American history that relates to American capitalism), and some aspects of the author’s worldview are at least questionable, but as a historian whose work provokes a reader to thought and to wrestling with timeless and deep and relevant philosophical matters, including the tangling questions of what it means to be free, this is a work that I must highly recommend, even if it is not a particularly lighthearted work, among its difficulties showing how the rise of modern capitalism and debt has made many into slaves in some fashion, and that merely traveling around the world footloose and fancy free does not make one free of the torments of the mind. No, this book is not lighthearted in the least.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Empire Of Necessity

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