Empire of Liberty

A couple of months ago I heard an interview on NPR with Greg Grandin, an NYU history professor who wrote Fordlandia (which I’ve wanted to read, but haven’t gotten to yet). He was talking about his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, which centers around an onboard slave revolt.

I ordered it, and as I was finishing grading, and recovering from the end of the semester, I slowly started in on it. Whether because I was tired/distracted, or because the early stretches of the book were concerned with lots of background on Atlantic slavery that will be familiar to historians, I wasn’t so enthusiastic about the first half. That background is necessary for understanding the forces that brought together a whaling ship based out of New England, and a slave ship with a long and convoluted history (almost as convoluted as the histories of the people it was carrying). I do wonder if that background, including some discussions that appear to digress, might lose a general reader more intrigued by the story, and I suspect the book as a whole won’t offer enough new material or groundbreaking arguments to intrigue scholars. It’s a tricky course to navigate, but I think Grandin does it fairly well–he touches on a remarkable array of topics while maintaining a central narrative thread, and has done some amazing work tracking the major participants in the rebellion from their port of departure in Africa, through the Americas, and onto the ship Tryal. 

I was much more intrigued by the story of the rebellion, and its discovery by a New England sealing captain, which winds up being the center-point of the book while not actually filling the bulk of its pages. I also have to admit that I enjoyed Grandin’s willingness to juxtapose historical events with Herman Melville’s fictionalization of them in his novella, Benito Cereno (and yes, Melville is popping up everywhere for me lately–this is totally coincidental), though I also wonder if Grandin’s narrative suffers a bit by comparison.

What I think this book especially offers, however, is a story that opens up myriad avenues for further exploration, and which I could see serving as the basis for a class on Atlantic slavery. The story ranges through Europe, West Africa, South America, New England, and the Caribbean, while touching at least briefly on multiple varieties of slavery as an institution, the different types of labor it involves, slave life, religion, resistance/revolts, the Middle Passage, maroons, Indian slavery, gendered differences, the economics of the trade–you get the point. It’s dizzying (and well-documented) enough that I could imagine* using the narrative to identify topics about which the class wants to read more (especially since many treatments are brief, but include useful citations), then turning students loose to collectively locate readings/resources/materials. Scholarly articles wouldn’t need to be ordered in advance and so could comprise the bulk of the readings–they could compile a long list on each topic, then we could winnow out some selections. Major books would emerge in this process, as well, but could serve as the center of group presentations throughout the semester, leveraging library copies rather than stressing the bookstore out.

*I’m imagining, not proposing. Just want to be clear.

This would probably be a bit chaotic unless carefully managed and probably guided in terms of selecting readings from among the lists (especially to make sure the class addressed major fields and didn’t overlook anything major), but it would demand a level of research and assessment of sources at the outset that students get less of when working with a prepared syllabus/reading list, and it would presumably expose an instructor to some resources s/he might not normally run across. And I have to think it would turn up some unexpected topics, sources, and connections/organizations/themes.

So don’t make this out to be only a story; Grandin engages, albeit in subtle ways, with an extensive historiography, making sure that in the end he reminds us, “it is not the paradox that defines America but rather the ceaseless bids to escape the paradox, to slip out of the shackles of history, even as such efforts inevitably deepen old entanglements and create new ‘necessities.'”

And no, I didn’t have two copies. But I took a picture of the dust jacket sitting atop the book itself, because dust jackets drive me nuts, and I relish pulling them off and tossing them onto a shelf until I’m done reading.

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