NYU History Professor, author of “Fordlandia“, and past Action Speaks panelist, Greg Grandin has written a new book that follows the life of Amasa Delano, a New Englander and lifelong mariner who encounters a rebellion onboard a slave ship in 1805.
The story, simply put, is a story of play acting. Delano is a seal pelt-collecting Captain whose boat happens upon a ship whose crew has been overthrown by the West African slaves they were transporting. The rebel slaves on the ship pretend to still be enslaved to confuse Delano. He eventually discovers this ruse which leads to the torture and murder of the rebel leaders.
If this story sounds familiar, you may recognize it as the acclaimed Herman Melville novella “Benito Cereno.” But just as for Melville, The Empire of Necessity is more than meets the eye. For Grandin, this is a story of 18th and 19th Century slavery and how it constructed global empires in the United States and Spain. The Enlightenment‘s ideas of personal freedom and democracy were slowly spreading but those who held these ideas were often unable to extend them to others, particularly slaves. Grandin highlights this clash between the interdependent and contradictory ideas of Slavery and the Enlightenment’s interest in personal freedom and democracy.
The Empire of Necessity is not simply a story about the past, however brilliantly researched and depicted it is by Grandin. It is a story for, and of, our times as well. For Grandin, our contemporary terrors of war, inequality and ecological destruction were not created by the extremism of Melville’s Lear-like Captain Ahab but by the thoughtful rationalist Delano who brutally murders rebel slaves as easily as he beats seals to death. But Delano is a 19th century Willy Loman, a tragic figure whose philosophy and belief in the ‘rational order’ of the marketplace blinds him from understanding how his fate and the fate of all around him are bound together on a life raft he is incapable of seeing.