Age of Liberty, Age of Slavery

Paul Street, Black Agenda Report (July 22, 2014)

Greg Grandin, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: New Press, 2014)

After recently reviewing a left historian’s study of race and slavery in the New World during the so-called Age of Liberty (Paul Street, “The White United States’ Real Founding Father: Lord Dunmore,” ZNet/Telesur English, July 4, 2014), I hardly expected to be doing the same thing again anytime soon. But then something happened. I ran by chance across US Latin American historian Greg Grandin’s remarkable book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (New York: New Press, 2014). Sometimes clichés ring true: once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Grandin’s volume is a fitting follow-up to the book I discussed in my earlier review – Gerald Horne’s The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (New York University Press, 2014). Horne’s book culminates in the American “revolution” of 1776 – an event he shows to have been driven largely by the white North American elite’s sense that a symbiotic combination of black resistance and British policy left the colonists no choice but to secede from the British Empire if they wanted to preserve and expanding their profitable slave system.

It wasn’t just the mostly southern slaveholders among that elite that feared for the future of black chattel slavery under continued British rule. As Horne notes, the northern Yankee and New England mercantile elite was heavily invested in North American slavery at numerous levels.

The Savage “Retribution” of “an Anti-Slavery Republican”

Grandin picks up the story of the American “revolution’s” intimate, hypocritical, and perverse relationship with slavery just shy of three decades after the US Declaration of Independence. The critical incident around which his book turns occurred in the South Pacific, off a remote island near the coast of what is today Chile on February 20, 1805. That’s’ when Captain Amasa Delano – an economically challenged Massachusetts seal-hunter and a descendent of the New England’s original Indian-slaughtering Puritan settlers – climbed aboard The Tryal, a distressed Spanish ship carrying dozens of black Africans who appeared to be obedient slaves. They weren’t. In reality, they were engaged in an elaborate deception, having revolted earlier and killed most of the ship’s crew and its Spanish Catholic officers along with the Latin American slave-owner (Alejandro Aranda) who had purchased them on the Atlantic coast (in Montevideo, in contemporary Argentina) and dragged them across the arid South American pampas and over the treacherous Andes mountains only to stick them back in another slave ship on the Pacific. The Tryal was a floating and crippled slave insurrection.

The insurrection’s Black and Muslim leaders, Mori and his son Babo, hoped that the Tryal’s surviving captain Bennito Cerreno could garner food, water, and other assistance from Delano, without giving away his captivity. After that, they expected Cerreno to return them to their West African homeland – no small order.

Earlier, before Delano arrived, Mori had asked Cerreno if there was anywhere he and his fellow Africans might live with liberty in the New World. Cerreno lied when he replied in the negative, for he was surely aware that slaves had recently rebelled against their French masters and established a free Black republic in Haiti.

Delano was an “anti-slavery Republican.” He was the product of a New England town (Duxbury, Massachusetts) whose pro-Independence Protestant preachers “told him that one’s fate was not predestined, that man had reason and free will that gave him the power to make of himself what one would” (Grandin, Empire of Necessity, 258). Such thinking inspired the name of Delano’s ship, which he made himself after a series of unsuccessful voyages in search of fortune: The Perseverance.

So, did the New England sea captain extend these ideas to Mori, Babo, and the rest of the West African rebels aboard the aptly named Tryal – to the slaves who now struggled, persevered heroically to employ their reason and free will on behalf of their own freedom? He did not. Quite the opposite! When Delano (a distant relation to future US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) finally figured out that the slaves were actually in charge of the ship, his heart went out to his fellow Caucasian, the Spaniard Benito Cerreno and his remaining crew. Sensing potential for profit in seizing the Tryal (a “prize…worth tens of thousands of pesos”) and a chance to rally his disaffected crew, Delano sent his subordinates aboard the Tryal to bloodily crush the rebellion. He “reminded his men of the ‘suffering conditions of the poor Spaniards’ at the hands of the slaves” and told them that if they “failed to retake the vessel, ‘death must be their fate.’”

Delano’s “command to capture the Tryal, with its double promise of doing good and making money, helped unite a fractured crew.” By Grandin’s account in a chapter bearing the curious title “Retribution”:

“At 10 p.m., Delano got word that the Tryal was taken. He and Cerreno waited until the next morning to board…Babo’s body was among the bales of yerba maté, as were the corpses of six other West Africans… The rest were chained tight, hands to feet…They had been tortured. Some had been disemboweled and were writhing in their viscera. Others had had the skin on their backs and thighs shaved off…This had been done with the Perseverance’s skinning knives, which, Delano wrote, ‘were always kept exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.’” (Grandin, 221-223)

“Retribution” seems an odd word choice. The slaves aboard the Tryal had done nothing to Delano and his crew other than to (quite understandably) try to deceive them in pursuit of the human freedom that Delano cherished – for himself. “Retribution” for what, then? For acting to determine their own destiny and asserting their humanity? For challenging the savage white supremacism on which the slave system and trade depended – a system and trade upon which “radical” New England relied for its prosperity? As the historian Lorenzo Greene noted 46 years ago, slavery “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England; about it revolved, and on it, depended, most of her other industries” (79-80).

Floating Tombs”

Delano wanted his crew to be moved by the “‘suffering conditions of the poor Spaniards’ at the hands of the slaves,” not by the miserable situation of the slaves themselves, whose emaciation and sickness had been plainly evident to him when he first boarded the Tryal. Besides being unavoidable in the course of all too briefly seizing control of the Tryal, the killing of Aranda and much of Cerreno’s crew could have been seen as just retribution in its own small way for the monumental crime of slavery. Grandin’s depiction of Africans’ experience on the Middle Passage to Latin America leaves little doubt as to the mass-murderous evil of the slave trade. Grandin tells of slaves thrown overboard by captains who could no longer afford to feed them; of slaves who could not make it over the Andes being decapitated and thrown down ravines; of ships that entered Latin American ports with hundreds of slaves so near death as to be un-sellable and thus left to wander around until they perished. The slave ships, Grandin notes, were “floating tombs” (40). By Grandin’s account:

“It took almost four months [for a slaver] to make the trip [from the eastern, Indian Ocean side of Africa to Latin America], around the Cape of Good Hope and then running against the South Atlantic’s westerlies, an agonizingly long and lethal voyage…Along the way, Africans died from contagious diseases or from the miseries of crossing the ocean in a claustrophobically small space. Some went blind. Others lost their minds…the holds were never cleaned fast enough to counter the accumulating strata of excrement, vomit, blood, and pus..[so that] the floors of the holds ..‘resembled a slaughter-house.’”(39).

Slavers Singing the “Marseillaise”

As Grandin’s book makes clear, it wasn’t just United States-specific capitalism, nationalism, and bourgeois republicanism that were stained by the sin of slavery. Mori, Babo, and other West Africans who ended up on the Tryal were brought to the New World by a one-armed French Revolutionary pirate named Mordielle. Mordielle:

“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, Revolution, and Le Democrat, he patrolled the coast of Africa…harassing the French Revolution’s enemies …Mordielle, true to his republican spirit, preferred to be addressed as citoyen – citizen…not captain” (13).

Mordielle had hijacked a British slave ship jammed with 400 Africans (including Mori, Babo, and others who ended up on the Tryal) off the coast of Western Africa in late 1803. He did not return the stolen Blacks to their homeland in the name of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Instead, he proceeded across the South Atlantic to Montevideo, where he expected to receive 80,000 silver pesos in return for his prize of “starving slaves who had just spent sixty or so days listening to pirates singing the ‘Marseillaise’” (35). Mordielle 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…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.” (20-21).

One of the Most Radical of Chile’s Founding Fathers”

After being delivered by Delano to Spanish authorities in what is today Chile, Mori and eight other Tryal rebels were sentenced to death by a Spanish judge – the royal advocate in the city of Concepcion. In his rapidly handed-down ruling, the royal advocate was unmoved by the case presented by a public advocate, who “t[ook] the three most insurgent principles of New World republicanism and tried to extend them to the West Africans: individuals are free, they have a right to revolt against any regime that takes away their freedom, and all men deserve equality before the law” (228). The judge “emphasized the brutality of their crimes” and proclaimed that “the revolt was illegitimate, though he didn’t elaborate on the reasons why, and that the slaves were guilty of waging unjust ‘war’ against Delano and his men” (228) – a curious charge.

The execution by hanging and cremation of Mori and his fellow African insurgents in Concepcion’s town square was a barbarous affair:

“On the morning of the day of their execution, soldiers took them out of their cell and chained them one behind the other in a single column… onlookers fell in behind, ringing bells and burning incense. When the parade arrived in the plaza, with its gallows, the African women and children who had remained on the Tryal were there waiting: Rozas had ordered that they be brought to the city to witness the execution.…the corpses of the nine rebels were cut loose from the gallows and decapitated. Their heads were placed on pikes around the plaza and their bodies burned in a large pyre in its center” (229).

Who was the judge who quickly ordered this savage punishment and dismissed a spirited republican defense of slaves’ right to rebel? Juan Martinez de Rozas, a republican “freethinker and plotter” (226) inspired by the American and French Revolutions. Rozas was, one local Concepcion historian told Grandin, “one of the most radical of Chile’s founding fathers” and “a fierce opponent of slavery” (229, emphasis added). When Grandin asked the local historian if he found it ironic that a revered republican founder of modern Chile had rendered such a harsh judgment on the Tryal rebels, the historian asked him how someone “from the United States” could “ask such a question” (229).

Exceptional (United States of) American Slavery

The local historian had a good point – a better one than Grandin seems to grasp in Empire of Necessity. It is true, as Grandin observes, that what the celebrated North American (US) historian Edmund S. Morgan called “the American paradox” – whereby “the Age of Liberty” was also “the Age of Slavery” – was not limited to the United States. As Grandin reminds us, “the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South…What was true for Richmond [Virginia] was no less true for Buenos Aires and Lima – that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property.” “It might seem an abstraction,” Grandin adds, “to say that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery. But consider these figures: of the known 10,148,288 Africans put on slave ships bound for the Americas between 1514 and 1866 (of a total historians estimate to be at least 12,500,000), more than half, 5,131,385, were embarked after July 4, 1776” (8).

That’s accurate enough, but consider this: by 1860, approximately two-thirds of all New World slaves lived in the US. This was a reflection among other things of the North American white settlers’/slaveholders’ 1776 “counter-revolution” (Horne) – a secession that slayed the specter of British Abolition and opened up vast new swaths of land for theft from the continent’s original inhabitants and the deployment of new slave cash-crop production armies. In the US alone among the new Western Hemisphere Republics of the 19th century, slavery flourished rather than faded – until its destruction in the Civil War.

The Great Egalitarian Thrust…”

Near the end of his book, Grandin remarks on the irony of Amasa Delano’s life both before and after the Tryal incident – a life that Delano wrote about in a long memoir published in 1817. “Having been catapulted into the world by the great egalitarian thrust of the American Revolution,” Grandin writes, “Delano found it to be one long parade of mortifications…” (Grandin, 256-57, emphasis added). But as Horne reminds us, the American “revolution” had no “great egalitarian” meaning for the early US republic’s Blacks and indigenes. For them, the US Founders’ victory over London was an authoritarian cataclysm.

The New World upheaval most worthy of the word “revolution” during the Age of Liberty took place in 1804 in Haiti – the new nation Cerreno wouldn’t tell Mori and Babo about. Fittingly enough, it would be treated by 19th century US authorities very much like the US has treated Cuba since the Castro revolution – as a hated pariah state.

Paul Street’s next book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014) order at

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By | 2014-07-28T12:02:33+00:00 July 28th, 2014|Articles|