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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Just Finished Reading: The Empire of Necessity – The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin (FP: 2014)

With the world still staggering from the American and French revolutions and the Haiti slave uprising the Spanish slave ship Tryal is spotted by an American sealer obviously in distress. Offing any assistance he can Captain Amasa Delano of the Perseverance becomes increasingly annoyed at his Spanish counterparts standoffish nature and is glad to leave the ship hours later and return to his own. Strange as the experience has proven so far Captain Deano is completely unprepared when the Spanish captain jumps into his boat and demands his help. For the past weeks the remnants of the Spanish crew have lived under the threat of death. The slaves on board had revolted and had managed to kill most of the crew and passengers only leaving enough men alive to sail them back to Africa. Hoping to be approached by a friendly ship Captain Benito Cerreno had only pretended to sail back across the Atlantic until finally, at the end of his tether, rescue arrives in the guise of an American ship down on its luck and approaching mutiny itself. Giving chase in the expectation of prize money the badly damaged slaver is quickly captured and the slaves aboard either killed or recaptured. Their long trial and even longer journey away from their homeland has only just begun as they find themselves back in captivity and fought over in the courts of South America.

This was, to be honest, a complete impulse buy. I think the thing that really ticked a few boxes for me was the word ‘rebellion’ in the title and it being (yet again) a tale based at least in some part at sea. What I didn’t really expect was just how completely gripping the story was. The backbone of the tale was the rebellion aboard and recapture of the Tryal. But it was much, much more than that. Not only did the author discuss in some detail the biographies of the two captains (originating from very different cultures – imperialist Spain and newly confident revolutionary America) and well as the background to the despicable trade in human life and human misery of which I was reasonably familiar (or at least I thought I was) but the author also delved into the revolutionary changes occurring at this time across South America as the countries we are familiar with today fought for their independence against Spain and Portugal.

Several thing surprised me during this riveting narrative. One was the number of Muslim slaves taken from Africa and deposited (at this time) mostly in South America to work in mines and in the sugar cane fields. Indeed followers of Islam amongst the slave population was so common, and growing through importation and dissemination of the faith amongst existing non-Muslim slaves, that slave runners were advised not to take captives from certain areas because they were known to be educated, speak multiple languages, be resilient and resistance to forces and to be capable to organising sophisticated rebellions. The other thing that really struck me was the hypocrisy of both the French and American traders who regularly espoused on the virtues of Liberty and Fraternity but still traded in human life – even when they had black members amongst their own crews. The cognitive dissonance must have been so thick you could’ve cut it with a cutlass. There is far, far too much in this 270+ page book to even gloss over in passing. The narrative throughout is strong, directed and endlessly fascinating. Covering most of South America, the Caribbean, Africa and the American East coast this is a richly detailed look at an age at once familiar and yet very strange indeed. Highly recommended and, although it’s too early to tell, definitely one of the highlights of the year. 


Stephen said...

I never knew about the Muslim slaves in SA. I thought most of the slave markets were near the..well, "armpit" -- the part that South American can notch in to.

Brian Joseph said...

Great review of this book.

It sounds fascinating. Of course it reminds me of the story of the Amistad.

With that, the worst stories of slavery are so disturbing. I read a fair number of them when I was younger but I am finding them harder and harder to take.

CyberKitten said...

@ Stephen: The Muslim angle came as a complete surprise to me. It honestly never appeared on my radar. The slave markets mostly mentioned were in Montevideo and progressed onto Lima.

@ Brian: It reminded me of Amistad too. Reading about the details of slavery is indeed difficult. It beggars belief that people could do that to other human beings. It's definitely important to know it happened though so that it never happens again.