The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

by Greg Grandin


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One morning in 1805, off a remote island in the South Pacific, Captain Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, climbed aboard a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans he thought were slaves. They weren't. In fact, they were performing an elaborate ruse, having risen up earlier and slaughtered most of the crew and officers. When Delano, an idealistic, anti-slavery republican, finally realized the deception-that the men and women he thought were humble slaves were actually running the ship-he rallied his crew to respond with explosive violence.

Drawing on research on four continents, The Empire of Necessity is the untold history of this extraordinary event and its bloody aftermath. Delano's blindness that day has already inspired one masterpiece-Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. Now historian Greg Grandin returns to these dramatic events to paint an indelible portrait of a world in the throes of revolution, providing a new transnational history of slavery in the Americas-and capturing the clash of peoples, economies, and faiths that was the New World in the early 1800s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250062109
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 361,179
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as Empire's Workshop and The Blood of Guatemala. A professor of history at New York University and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center, Grandin has served on the UN Truth Commission investigating the Guatemalan Civil War and has written for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, New Statesman, and The New York Times.

Read an Excerpt

The Empire of Necessity

Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

By Greg Grandin

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2014 Greg Grandin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4317-8



In early January 1804, a one-armed French pirate cruised into Montevideo's harbor. The Spaniards in his multinational crew had trouble saying his name, so they called him Captain Manco — manco being the Spanish word for cripple. François-de-Paule Hippolyte Mordeille didn't mind the nickname. It was the rank he didn't like.

Mordeille was a seafaring Jacobin. He presided over men who wrapped red sashes around their waists, sang the "Marseillaise," and worked the deck to the rhythms of revolutionary chants. Long live the republic! Perish earthly kings! String up aristocrats from the yardarms! Commanding ships called Le Brave Sans-Culottes, Révolution, and Le Démocrat, he patrolled the coast of Africa from Île de France (now Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean to Senegal in the Atlantic, harassing the French Revolution's enemies and guarding its friends. Mordeille, true to his republican spirit, preferred to be addressed as citoyen — citizen — or Citoyen Manco if need be. But not captain.

Coming south from Brazil, Mordeille tacked to starboard and hugged the coastline as he entered Río de la Plata, the great water highway to Montevideo and Buenos Aires and points beyond. The broad sea gulf seemed welcoming. But it was shallow, shoaled, and rock strewn. Its fast-flowing tributaries — it was the mouth of several rivers — ran through some of the driest regions in South America, pouring tons of silty sediment into the estuary, raising sandbars, and rerouting sea lanes. Strong dark-cloud winds coming off the pampas were especially treacherous when they hit the water at low tide. Just a few years earlier a windstorm had wrecked eighty-six ships in a single blow. Even the north shore, considered the safest route in and along which Mordeille sailed, was known as "carpenter's coast," since woodworkers made a living salvaging the timber of washed-up broken ships.

Of Río de la Plata's two cities, Buenos Aires, located farther in on the south shore, was wealthier. But sailors preferred Montevideo on the north. It was littered with sunken hulls and still didn't have a wharf or a pier, but its harbor was deeper than the shallow riverbed off of Buenos Aires and thus preferable for loading and unloading cargo. Mordeille sailed in, driving his ship, the Hope, through the bay's muddy water to safe anchorage. Behind him came the Neptune, a prize Mordeille and his crew had taken near the Bight of Biafra.

* * *

Copper-bottomed, teak-framed, three-masted, and three-decked, the 343- ton Neptune had a sharp-angled cutwater topped with an ornately carved prow: a lion without a crown, as the Spaniards would later describe the figurehead. It was big and looked warlike. Its purpose, though, was to carry cargo and not to fight. It was no match for smaller, better-armed vessels like the Hope, a fact that its captain, David Phillips, learned at great cost.

While the ship was anchored off Bonny Island, Phillips had heard reports that a French corvette was cruising the sea lanes, standing between him and open water. But with his hold full, he decided to risk a confrontation and make for Barbados. When he saw the Hope coming in fast on portside, Phillips gave the order to run. But his pursuer was faster, sweeping the trader's bow, forcing it to give up the wind. Mordeille then boxhauled around, bracing his ship's sails and returning on the Neptune. Phillips was trapped.

If the objective was to destroy the target, the fight would have been over quickly. But the rules of privateering meant that Mordeille got to keep what the Neptune was carrying, so his men aimed their guns not at its hull but at its rigging. The firing continued as boys ran back and forth watering the Hope's deck to make sure blown powder didn't set it alight. A party of men readied themselves with boarding axes to take the Neptune by hand. The weapons weren't needed. A ball hit the rudder head, making it impossible to steer, and after about an hour more of firing, with eleven of his crew dead, another sixteen wounded, and his sails pocked and rigging frayed, Captain Phillips surrendered.

When Mordeille's men opened the Neptune's hatch, they found close to four hundred Africans, mostly boys and men between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, but also a number of women and children.

They were in chains and dressed in blue cotton smocks.

* * *

Spanish documents indicate that some of the Tryal rebels were among them. But they don't say who or how many. The name Mori was common for captives embarked at Bonny. According to one database of African names, of all the recorded men called Mori to leave Africa as slaves, a plurality of them, just under 37 percent, did so from Bonny. Variations of Babo — Baboo, Babu, Baba, and so forth — were likewise found among slaves put on ships at nearby ports. Court records give the names of only thirteen other participants in the uprising, all men: Diamelo, Leobe, Natu, Quiamobo, Liché, Dick, Matunqui, Alasan, Yola, Yan, Malpenda, Yambaio, or Samba, and Atufal. The Tryal's fifty-seven other West African men and women remain anonymous.

Most of the men and women Mordeille found on the Neptune would already have traveled weeks, in some cases months, moving along the trunks and tributaries of the enormous Niger, an ever-expanding grid reaching deep into the interior. Bonny was a popular station during these years, as big ships of considerable draft could anchor on the hard sand bed and take on large cargos, as many as seven hundred Africans in some cases. The river was "spacious and deep," reported one English sailor around the time the Neptune would have arrived, "wider than the Thames." At any given moment there'd be a queue of up to fifteen vessels, many of them Liverpoolers, forming along the island's shoreline, waiting for the black traders who came down from the inland once a fortnight. The traders would arrive in flotillas of twenty to thirty canoes, each holding as many as thirty captives, to be bartered for guns, gunpowder, iron, cloth, and brandy.

The Europeans at Bonny and elsewhere in West Africa had no idea where the cargo came from. As late as 1803, the British Royal African Company instructed its agent in nearby Cape Coast Castle, on the Gold Coast west of Bonny, to survey the African merchants from whom they brought their slaves: did they come to the coast in "small parties" or "caravans"? What were the names of the "towns or villages passed through"? Were the people in these towns "Mohamedans or pagans"? If they came from the "Great Desert," "what were the names of their tribes?" If they came "from beyond the Niger," what did "they know concerning its course"? Did they have any information about the "great chain of mountains that are reported to extend from Manding to Abysinia"? The British had been on the Gold Coast for well over a hundred years — they had controlled Cape Coast Castle since 1664 — and yet their agent could give only the vaguest answers to these questions.

The Africans embarked at Bonny, even if their enslavers didn't know their origins, had a reputation for being willful and prone to fatalism. Those two qualities might seem opposing but they often resulted in the same action: suicide. One ship surgeon, Alexander Falconbridge, in his 1788 condemnation of the slave trade, tells of fifteen slaves put on a ship at Bonny who, before the ship left port, threw themselves into a school of sharks. Another voyager on a Bonny slave ship, a young boy kept awake by the "howling of these negros," described three captives who managed to break free and jump overboard: they were "dancing about among the waves, yelling with all their might what seemed to me to be a song of triumph" until their "voices came fainter and fainter upon the wind."

* * *

The Neptune was a Liverpool slave ship, which meant that, for Mordeille, its taking was more than potentially profitable. It was personal. The Frenchman had lost his arm escaping from a Spanish dungeon, but it was during a long lockup in Portsmouth, after having been captured by a Liverpool corsair, that he developed his "tenacious hatred" of the British.

Liverpool had joined the fight against republicanism with exceptional fervor. When news arrived in early 1793 that the French had executed their king, Louis XVI, city fathers lowered the Union Jack that flew over the city's Custom House to half mast. Mourning led to anger, and anger to action against the regicides, lest, warned one newspaper, the "red cap of liberty be raised, the flag of death unfurled, the Marseillaise chanted, the age of reason proclaimed, and the goddess and her guillotine be made permanent" in Piccadilly. Liverpool's slavers, planters, and shippers financed a large mercenary fleet made up of about sixty-seven privateers, trim, fast ships mounted with twenty guns or better to take the fight against Jacobinism to the sea. For a time, French vessels were at their mercy.

But then Paris began to field its own privateers, including Mordeille, and Napoleon's rise led to an improvement in the republic's naval forces. By the time the Hope fell on the Neptune, France could not only better defend itself on the open sea but go on the offensive, harassing British cargo and slave ships as they traveled to and from Caribbean sugar plantations. Sailing under a Dutch flag with a French letter of marque, Mordeille was among the most tenacious of these avengers, hailed by the Napoleonic press as the scourge of Liverpool: "Mordeille! Mordeille! Small and frail, but in the breach he has the strength of heroes."

The Neptune was owned by John Bolton, one of the largest backers of the city's mercenary fleet and an outfitter of a private anti-Jacobin squad of nearly six hundred men he named Bolton's Invincibles, armed to protect Liverpool from enemies within and without. Born the "poor boy" son of a village apothecary, he started his career as an apprentice clerk in the West Indies, and legend has it that he parlayed a sack of potatoes and a brick of cheese into the start-up capital of what became a slaving empire. Leaving his "coloured" wife and children behind penniless in the Caribbean, he returned to Liverpool, splitting his time between the bustle of his Henry Street counting house and Storrs Hall, a country mansion built in the middle of an ornamental grove on a wooded promontory overlooking Windermere Lake, where he entertained Tory politicians and Romantic poets, including his friend William Wordsworth.

Bolton might have come into life humble, but the wealth produced by at least 120 slave voyages let him leave it in a fine coffin shrouded in black velvet and studded with silver nails. His funeral cortege included:

eight gentleman abreast, three hundred boys from the Blue Suit School six deep, two hundred and fifty Gentlemen on foot, six deep, sixty gentlemen on horseback, thirty gentlemen's private carriages in a line. Several gigs.... Four mutes on horseback. Three mourning coaches, each drawn by four horses. Mr. Bolton's private carriage, drawn by four, beautiful blood horses, bringing up the rear.

It was a Scouser send-off to remember, and observers thought the bells of St. Luke tolled with exceptional beauty the day Bolton was laid to earth.

* * *

As they made ready to sail across the Atlantic, the Hope and the Neptune were floating contradictions of the Age of Revolution. On board one ship were enslaved Africans understood to be property, which meant that according to some interpretations of natural-law liberalism they could be bought, sold, and traded as cargo. On board the other, a multihued crew lived the French Revolution's promise of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. Europeans, mostly French and Spanish, worked alongside dark-skinned Portuguese mulattos and black Africans and Haitians who served as gunners and musketeers. They assigned no title to skin color and spoke an egalitarian patois sounding sort of like French but with traces of Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and old langue d'oc, along with words picked up from around the Caribbean and the coasts of West and East Africa. Mordeille himself, born on the Mediterranean, not far from Marseilles and a short sail from North Africa, was once described as "black as an Ethiopian."

The color line did not, strictly speaking, divide the Atlantic between masters and slaves. In the navies and merchant fleets of all the seafaring empires and republics at the time, men of color — among them, Africans, South Sea islanders, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and freed American blacks — worked on ships, including slave ships, as cooks, cabin boys, sailors, and even, in a few instances, captains. Nor did white skin protect against the kind of arbitrary rule over body and will associated with chattel slavery. Press gangs roamed the wharves and piers of port cities throughout the British realm on the hunt for men to fill the ships of the Royal Navy, looking nothing so much as like the slave gangs that stalked the coasts and rivers of Africa.

In Liverpool, the vanguard of merchant reaction, savage fellows patrolled the streets, often led by a "dissipated, but determined-looking officer, in a very seedy uniform and shabby hat." Men would flee and children scream upon catching sight of them. Word quickly went out that there were "hawks abroad." Pity the poor sailor who didn't keep his door bolted and shades drawn: "he was seized upon as if he were a common felon, deprived of his liberty, torn from his home, his friends, his parents, wife or children, hurried to the rendezvous-house, examined, passed, and sent on board the tender, like a negro to a slave-ship."

Once at sea sailors were subject to rule as feudal as the ancien régime and as brutal as the plantation. They could be flogged, tarred, feathered, keelhauled — dunked in the ocean and dragged under the hull, barnacles doing to backs in a minute what it took the whip fifteen lashes — or executed, made to walk the plank or hung by the yardarm. Even on ships like the Hope, which sailed with an insurgent élan and did away with rank, the authority of Mordeille, whether he be called citizen or captain, was absolute.

The African slave trade, however, was a different kind of bondage. It not only survived the dawn of the Age of Liberty but was expanding and becoming even more lucrative. And so back on the Neptune, after it had been secured, its dead heaved overboard, its British prisoners shackled, and its African cargo counted, Mordeille did the math and guessed that the ship's slaves were worth, wholesale, at least 80,000 silver pesos (it's nearly impossible to do a straight conversion into today's currency, but this princely sum was roughly equal to the annual salaries of the viceroys of Mexico and Peru, the highest Spanish officials in the Americas).

It doesn't seem that Mordeille gave much thought to the contradiction, the fact that he was a Jacobin believer in the rights of man and the liberties of the world who made his living seizing British slaves and selling them to Spanish American merchants. After all, he swore allegiance not to ideals but to the French nation, which had abolished slavery in its colonies in 1794 only to restore it eight years later. Napoleon's 1802 announcement of its restoration was terse: "Slavery shall be maintained"; the slave trade "shall take place." In any case, the revolution's to-ing and fro-ing when it came to slavery and freedom mattered little to the privateer or, apparently, to his men.

When everything was ready on board the Neptune, the inventory complete, the rudder repaired, the damaged sails replaced, and the rigging redone, the two ships, the victor and its vanquished prize, set sail for Montevideo. The British, including the officers, had been placed in a hold, not the one that contained the Africans but a smaller one, below the Neptune's quarterdeck.


Excerpted from The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin. Copyright © 2014 Greg Grandin. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 1

Part I: Fast Fish

1. Hawks Abroad 13

2. More Liberty 22

3. A Lion without a Crown 31

4. Body and Soul 38

5. A Conspiracy of Lifting and Throwing 49

Interlude: I Never Could Look at Death without a Shudder 54

Part II: A Loose Fish

6. A Suitable Guide to Bliss 61

7. The Levelling System 72

8. South Sea Dreams 78

Interlude: Black Will Always Have Something Melancholy in It 91

Part III: The New Extreme

9. The Skin Trade 97

10. Falling Man 106

11. The Crossing 112

12. Diamonds on the Soles of Their Feet 117

Interlude: Heaven's Sense 123

Part IV: Further

13. Killing Seals 131

14. Isolatos 142

15. A Terrific Sovereignty 150

16. Slavery Has Grades 160

Interlude: A Merry Repast 166

Part V: If God Wills

17. Night of Power 171

18. The Story of the San Juan 182

19. Mohammed's Cursed Sect 186

Interlude: Abominable, Contemptible Hayti 197

Part VI: Who Aint a Slave

20. Desperation 203

21. Deception 211

22. Retribution 219

23. Conviction 224

Interlude: The Machinery of Civilization 234

Part VII: General Average

24. Lima, or The Law of General Average 239

25. The Lucky One 249

26. Undistributed 254

Epilogue: Herman Melville's America 265

A Note on Sources and Other Matters 275

Archives Consulted 293

Notes 297

Acknowledgments 343

Illustrations Credits 347

Index 349

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