In The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, historian Grandin recounts a bizarre slave ship uprising previously fictionalized in Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno.
Melville’s works comment on the historical events you chronicle here. How did your research alter your relationship with his fiction?
My knowledge of Melville was limited to Moby-Dick and Bartleby the Scrivener, so this drew me deeper into his world, his other works. This isn’t just a “true history” of the events that inspired Melville; it tells a much bigger story. Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature, capturing the power of slavery’s fundamental deception—not just the fantasy that some men were natural slaves, but that others could be absolutely free. My work reveals the origins of that power, the ways in which slavery came to penetrate every aspect of American life and thought.
Do you think we will ever fully understand the far-reaching effects of slavery on the modern world?
I don’t know. Historians have been describing the importance of slavery in the creation of the institutions and ideas we associate with modern life for over a century, starting with W.E.B. Du Bois. But it seems what is learned is regularly lost, and every generation has to rediscover the truth anew.
Characters in the book develop the idea that there are many ways to be enslaved. What are some pervasive forms of enslavement that exist today?
Mounting debt and starvation wages make life extremely precarious for the working and undocumented poor. And there are also subtle psychological and ideological forms of bondage as well. A blind belief in freedom, in individual supremacy, for instance, which seems to run strong through much of our politics, can be its own kind of slavery.
How did Islam play a role here?
No one knows how many Muslims were taken in the Atlantic slave trade, but some estimate as many as 10% of the total. What is certain is that Islam gave them a framework to make sense of their nearly two-year forced journey across half the Earth, allowing them to reconcile their willful efforts to break free of bondage with a sense of dread, a fear that their actions were destined, or predestined, to fail.
Both the individual and society struggle for freedom. Is freedom ultimately attainable by either? Will freedom of one lead to freedom of the other?
I think one point of the story is to avoid a simple opposition of one to the other, of the individual to society, but to understand how as individuals we are all bound together in society. As Melville said, we all “live enveloped in the whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks.”