Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin ****

About 210 years ago, there was a slave revolt aboard the Tryal off the coast of Chile. The novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is based on this incident. Now over 150 years after Melville published, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin is an historical accounting of the circumstances around that slave revolt.

The irony of this retelling is that even though Grandin makes a strong case for the literacy of the slaves, nothing is left in the historical record in their voice, so in spite of the author's effort to include both sides of this story, the voices of the slaves are still lost.

West Africa saw more Muslim missionaries than Catholic one. This was the primary reason for the high rate of literacy in the region.
Yet unlike the Latin Catholic Mass, the Word in West Africa wasn't just received. It was discussed in language the faithful could understand. Literacy and faith were intertwined.
Beyond the surprise of literacy of the West African slaves, was the high involvement in and financial dependence on the slave trade within abolitionist New England.
Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Connecticut some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slaves' lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses [also dependent on the slave trade].
Not only were New Englanders tied to slavery, but the liberal intellectuals refused to acknowledge the impact of slavery. Until corrected by black writers in the 1950s and 1960s, Melville's novella was viewed as an allegory, rather than a telling of the abuse of slaves. They dehumanized the slaves with critiques like this:
Blackness and darkness are Melville's predominant symbols of evil, and Babo [slave revolt leader] is blackness, not simply a Negro.
Anyone interested in a modern historical account of slavery in the early 19th century will benefit from this book.

This history draws on both the historical record and Melville's novella. Throughout the book, reference is made to Melville. I found the book reminiscent of Moby-Dick in structure. Rather than a straight narrative, the author includes digressions on life at sea.

In this history, seal hunting takes the place of whaling in Moby Dick. Various digressions expound on the life and technology of seal hunters. Like Melville, Grandin demonstrates broad interests in all aspects of the world surrounding the core story.

This is an excellent book for those interested in what the world was like beyond the often told story of slavery, but not ignoring slavery either.

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