Greg Grandin, who wrote Fordlandia, a book I devoured earlier in the summer, published a book this year called The Empire of Necessity. It is one of those marvelous books that comes along every now and again that deals with disparate threads of argument in parallel but refuses to compress it all into a neat cross-stitchable message at the end.
It is a book about slave-trading. Specifically, the shipment of slaves. Specifically, the shipment of slaves around the age of Revolutions at the turn of the 19th Century. Specifically one particular slave ship (The Tryal) that revolted.
That’s a lot of threads, all handled impeccably.
But it is also a book about Herman Melville and seal-hunting and the writing of a less renowned Melville novel called Benito Cereno, which re-told the story soon afterwards.
These divergent trajectories are held together and Grandin ranges between these points effortlessly. It is a stunning achievement really. The description of the shift in Presbyterian preaching in New England in the late 1700s towards moral confidence (in term spurred on by Unitarianism) at the beginning comes around at the end to help understand how the economics of slavery operated. The description of the geography of seal hunting grounds resonates as the overland passage of slaves from Argentina to Chile, through the Andes is unpacked.
The captain of the ship that stumbled over the Tryal was initially unaware of the slave revolt. The story how that came to be is utterly central to the entire book so I will leave it untouched. Suffice to say, Amasa Delano didn’t have the happiest life in all of Christendom. When he returned to America after years at sea, the entire society had begun its shift into modern capitalism:
Debt had taken a more central role in the growing nation’s economy, and Delano was trapped in its grip, dragged through court and, it seems, thrown into debtors’ prison.
The Englightenment hopes of the democratic revolutions in France and America are still taught in Irish primary schools as a humane achievement. In many ways they are. But Grandin’s book is breathtaking in how it reveals the ways in which the possibility of democracy rested on the economic boost of slavery and how the political rhetoric of Republics was revealed as deficient (if not a sham) by the utter refusal to grant full humanity to slaves. Liberty was secured by slaves. Melville pinned this hypocrisy down in an epigraph he used for one of his books:
Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.
We need more of books like this – by which I mean not just sumptuously creative history but books about this darkness at the heart of our present self-understanding. The West is built on slavery. The quays of Dublin were built with interest paid on loans by Liverpool slave-ship owners. The research and design that makes the Intel factory in Leixlip so astounding is conducted in Arizona and California, on land that was robbed from civilizations that were destroyed. There is no Eden for us, only Fall.
Until we tell that story right, we can’t get to grips with capitalism or globalisation or Christian mission. We can’t understand where we are if we never knew where we came from.
Your Correspondent, Got accepted to college after he sent a refusal letter to them without ever applying