Thursday, April 17, 2014

Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty

As reviewed in the UK Guardian, in an article entitled, "The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty; Michael Moorcock on a tale of revolt on board a slave ship that explores the interdependency of liberty and slavery in the US," by Michael Moorcock, on 16 April 2014 --  On 20 February 1805 in the remote bay of an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast, Captain Amasa Delano from Massachusetts, reduced to seal-hunting for a bad living, anchored his ship the Perseverance to take on fresh supplies of water and fish. Suddenly another ship, the Tryal, flying the Spanish flag, lumbered out of the morning mist. She was in desperate condition, her rigging ragged, boats missing, her complement reduced to a handful of half-starved sailors and with a cargo of unchained west African slaves.

The Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty
by Greg Grandin

When Delano boarded the Tryal he found her half-mad captain, Benito Cerreño, supported on the arms of his Muslim body-slaves Babo and Mori. The Spaniard sobbed out a fragmented story of losing hands, boats, passengers and cargo to sickness and the elements. He appealed to the good-hearted American for help. Astonished by the lack of discipline aboard, which he attributed to Cerreño's poor health and seamanship, Delano swiftly sent his longboat back to the Perseverance for supplies. An abolitionist, Delano was nonetheless impressed by the apparent devotion of the two slaves, father and son, who refused to be separated for a moment from their master.

Only as Delano left the ship did the charade collapse. Stumbling to the rail Cerraño leapt recklessly into the American's departing boat babbling of his capture and torture by the Africans. The slaves had revolted, killing most whites aboard, including the trader who owned them. Under threat of death, Cerreño and the others were forced to play out a charade for Delano. As soon as he returned to his own ship the Yankee organised pursuit of the rebels. Ultimately they were caught, and the ringleaders hideously punished. The main cargo of salvaged slaves were put up for sale, whereupon they and the ship became subject to a prolonged legal battle between the two captains as to their ownership. All this was recorded in Delano's memoirs, published in 1817 after his return to Boston and relative poverty. Soon after the publication (and commercial failure) of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville used Delano's account as the substance of his powerful novella "Benito Cereno", published in Putnam's Magazine in 1855. The story almost certainly appealed to the author as a parable examining the extraordinary relationship between slavery and liberty. As Greg Grandin points out in this remarkable book, the Age of Liberty and the Age of Slavery were the same. One simply could not have existed without the other.
The interdependency of apparent opposites fascinated Melville as it did a number of 19th-century American writers, including the superbly civilised transcendentalists (such as Emerson and Thoreau). The lives of settlers revealed this tangled truth on a daily basis and reflected their fascination with nature in the raw. Perhaps not entirely consciously, Melville understood Delano's story to be a metaphor for his young nation.

The American conscience has always been troubled by its relationship to genocide and slavery and, as Grandin points out, Melville throughout his writing life examined the anomalies by which people lived, dependent on death to sustain life and on slavery to sustain freedom. The American revolution was financed in great part by slavery and the young American state probably could not have continued without it. Of all the chief South and North American nations, only Canada remained attached to the original colonial power, and only Canada's economy did not depend on slavery. Indeed, the relatively small number of slaves in that country were mostly natives, captured and owned by other natives in the pursuit of inter-tribal war. By remaining attached to the mother country, Canada also seems to have resisted anything like mass genocide and remains the most equitable of the North American nations.

Melville took Delano's account and increased its narrative tensions, changing it only a little, but building up a dark, terrifying atmosphere as Delano gradually begins to realise something is wrong, and yet is unable, through his natural Yankee amiability, to determine what makes him so uneasy as black mothers sing a sinister dirge and west African carpenters clash axes they are apparently cleaning. His questions are answered mysteriously by Captain Cereno, so that the American suspects rudeness and social inadequacy in the Spaniard. Only in the dramatically improved ending, with Cereno and his men risking their lives in the sea and the enraged slaves pursuing them, does it dawn on him that those "rude blacks" he believed incapable of such subterfuge were actually the masters, and that his own prejudices allowed him to play into the hands of Babo and his rebels.

In a superbly argued and richly detailed account of the interdependencies of slavery and revolution throughout the Americas, as well as the religious traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam (many of the west Africans were educated Muslims), Grandin brings to vivid life the realities of the period, pointing out that, of the estimated 12,500,000 Africans carried to the Americas between 1514 and 1866, at least half were boarded after 4 July 1776. Many slaves were expert craftspeople; many, educated in madrasas, were literate; and some even owned or traded in slaves themselves. The slave trade boomed when it was liberalised by the Spanish crown after Spain failed to control the smuggling of black Africans. Numbers increased after 1800 as the US economy became increasingly reliant on slavery. The butchery of fur- and oil-bearing mammals on land and sea supplied the money to buy the slaves working the mines and fields of the New World, just as genocide of indigenous people supplied the land and precious metals. One person's freedom was all but impossible without another's servitude.

Melville, coming from a New England abolitionist tradition, did not make an obvious allegory out of Delano's account, and his black slaves are not shown to be particularly sophisticated or subtle – with the exception of Babo who, in a tense and sinister scene, insists on shaving the man he pretends is his master while Cereno, terrified, submits to his ministrations. When the truth is revealed the Africans become the savage, insensate force shown in DW Griffiths's film Birth of a Nation, but even here we can imagine that such a howling, furious mob can easily represent the form the guilt-ridden white unconscious most expects retribution to take.

Terrified by the Haitian revolution, republican France did all it could to suppress the first black state in the Americas. That revolution affected the imaginations of other imperial powers, as well as those beginning to emerge from under the European heel. Events on the Tryal symbolised a great deal to even the most liberal whites, and continued to offer subject matter to writers other than Melville. Both Pablo Neruda and the Uruquayan experimental novelist Tomás de Mattos were attracted to the topic, depicting Babo as far more of a hero than did Melville. Grandin's skill is that, as in his recent Fordlandia, a study of American utopianism through the dreams of Henry Ford, he can find metaphors that subtly reflect the vital dichotomies that pervade the American psyche.  (source: The UK Guardian)


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