- The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World by Greg Grandin
Slave ships,” writes Greg Grandin in his scrupulously researched new book, “could be smelled from miles away” (39). Conditions on board, as we ought to know by now, were beyond description, yet Grandin has succeeded in reanimating the horror. “Slave ships were more than floating tombs,” he writes; “They were floating laboratories, offering doctors and scientists opportunities to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments” (40). In addition to scurvy, consumption, dropsy, malaria, yellow fever, typhoid dysentery, ringworm, gonorrhea, and syphilis, slave ships were often plagued by epidemics of blindness. In one famous instance recounted by Grandin, blindness broke out among the Africans on a French slaver sailing from Bonny Island in 1819 and spread to all but one member of the ship’s crew. “Sightless sailors,” Grandin reports, “worked under the direction of the one seeing man ‘like machines,’ tied to the captain with a thick rope” (41). Ten days into this nightmare, the Rôdeur heard (or perhaps smelled) the approach of a Spanish slaver, the San León, and anticipated relief. “But,” writes Grandin, drawing on a first-hand account from one of the passengers on the French ship, “the entire crew and all the slaves of that ship had been blinded by disease as well: when the sailors of each vessel realized this ‘horrible coincidence,’ they fell into silence, ‘like that of death’ [and] eventually the León drifted away and was never heard from again” (41-42).
There is something archetypically Melvillean about this particular scene of misery. The “elongated Siamese ligature” that, in the “Monkey-Rope” chapter of Moby Dick “marries” Ishmael to Queequeg, here takes the form of a thick rope that binds the sightless crew to their sightless captain and, by implication, to the blinding violence of the slave trade. And when the second ship appears, it is hard not to imagine Ishmael stopping to reflect on a dread metaphysical gamming: the European slave trade encountering itself drifting helplessly in the mid-Atlantic. “Who ain’t a slave?” is the question we might be tempted to recall at such moments. But, then, a slave to what? Grandin’s book provides [End Page 85] an answer by tracing the network of economic incentives and dependencies that surrounded and led up to the slave rebellion on the Tryal in 1805, a rebellion that, in turn, inspired Herman Melville to write his masterful short fiction “Benito Cereno” (1855). The Empire of Necessity provides teachers of American literature with a wonderful way of contextualizing and thereby enriching discussion of Melville’s story. At the same time, it contributes to our appreciation of how massively what Marx in the first chapter of Capital called the “direct extra-economic force” of slavery’s “primitive accumulation” underwrote the global expansion of commerce and capitalization that began in the sixteenth century and continues today.
The book’s title is taken from a line in Melville’s “The Bell-Tower,” but Grandin uses it to refer to capital’s all-encompassing structures of determination. The forced labor of, and the international trade in, African men, women, and children, generated an unthinkable amount of wealth, and Grandin’s book does a fabulous job of conveying the enormity of this theft. Empire of Necessity takes us from Massachusetts to Liverpool, from the Cape Verde Islands and Saint Louis in Senegal to Buenos Aires and Lima, and from the South Pacific Islands to Canton, China. Grandin follows a trail of Americans, Europeans, and Africans across the world’s oceans and, with them, an endless proliferation of commoditized beings (seals, whales, cattle, mules, African and native slaves, European convicts, American debtors, impressed Englishmen) and commoditized things (fur, leather, tea, opium, spice, perfume, meat, silver, sugar, codfish, weapons). The “liberalization” of the Spanish Crown’s colonial economy, starting in the 1770s, provoked a massive increase in the number of Europeans seeking to take advantage of the Atlantic and South American slave trade...