We are living in a renaissance of historical writing. There’s always been a good market for popularly written histories, but that market consisted of books on presidents and wars written for a white, male, conservative reading audience. That’s not going away of course. But what has developed in the 21st century is an alternative market of big narrative books by academic historians written for a left-leaning market that take seriously both the insights of the historical profession over the past thirty years and the disturbing history of the American and global past. There’s a few reasons for this. First, historians have moved beyond the social history of the 70s with its demography and number crunching and tightly wound detail that added a tremendous amount to our historical knowledge but didn’t lend itself to a wide readership. Meanwhile, U.S. historians at least largely existed on the edge of the postmodern turn, making it relatively easy for the field to at accept writing for a broader audience (even if most historians don’t have the writing skills). But there’s also a greater popular audience for good histories and a necessary dissemination method for publicity. That’s the internet, where not only might a professor be on Twitter and write for websites, but where a community might spread around important ideas and let a general audience know what books they should read. The democratic nature of that medium–which is less democratic than it once was but still–allows for books to attract reviews and historians to have opportunities that simply wouldn’t have existed when the New York Times Book Review and The New Republic were among the only outlets to disseminate this material. Among those historians who have both benefited from the internet is myself, both in attracting a publisher and in having a market to move copies of a book that brings the past to bear on the present in ways intended to inspire activism.
This makes it an exciting time to be a historian and a reader (and both, in my case). We see straight academic histories like the recent books on slavery and capitalism by Sven Beckert and Ed Baptist take off and have real audiences that have gone far to provide context on the left for already shifting notions about slavery. Eric Foner is basically a national treasure, with his free MOOC a valued history to many. Jill Lepore is a publishing beast, pushing out both a respected book a year and excellent New Yorker essays. There’s historians like Ari Kelman who is telling familiar stories in new ways and people like Kevin Kruse writing books to address the issues that drive progressive politics today.
Of course what these historians all have in common is that they are U.S. historians. What about a Latin Americanist? Can they tap into this new market? That’s the space Greg Grandin has increasingly tried to fill. Long a respected scholar and passionate political writer, Grandin has in his last two books reached out to tell stories that are partially North American within a Latin American context. His last book, Fordlandia, was the story of Henry Ford’s ill-fated attempt to build a rubber plantation and company town reflecting his, shall we say, unique values in Brazil. It received a lot of acclaim. He has followed that with The Empire of Necessity , exploring the slave rebellion aboard the ship Tyral in 1805 and the rescue of the Spanish captain Benito Cerreño by an American captain named Amasa Delano (ancestor of FDR). Yes, this is the same incident that inspired Herman Melville to write his brilliant short novel Benito Cereno.
Winner of the 2015 Bancroft Prize, The Empire of Necessity succeeds in bringing a complex set of stories around slavery, geography, sealing, Latin American independence movements, shipping, the economics of the global shipping industry, African resistance, and much more. Yet while none of these things might immediately suggest to the lay reader a book they must pick up (outside perhaps of the Melville connection), the book succeeds spectacularly. This is the sort of well-written history that hides none of the horrors of the past yet is brilliantly written that people have long wished they could read. And now they can.
Grandin tells the story of slaves taken from Africa, brought to Montevideo after the original slave ship was taken over by a pirate, and then some eventually marched over the Andes into modern Chile. That experience alone, dealing with unbelievable elevation, is something that is central to the experiences of so many of the characters in this book. In Chile, they were placed on yet another ship to go to Peru. They revolted, killing several crew members and attempting to force Cerreño to take them back to Africa. Typically he lied to them and steered his way into the open water off the Chilean coast. Meanwhile, Delano, a sealer trying to be economically independent in a rapidly changing U.S. economy, has taken to sealing, killing thousands of the creatures and then sailing for Asia to sell the skins. An abolitionist, Delano ran into Cerreño’s ship. The self-emancipated slaves played it cool but at the last second, Cerreño jumps into Delano’s boat. Delano’s men then attack the Africans, the owner’s abolitionism instantly irrelevant, and the survivors are either executed or sold. Delano, desperate and in debt because he and others had hunted the south Pacific seals to tiny remnant populations, tried to take Cerreño’s limited profits in return for saving him from likely death, but ultimately he received a relatively small amount from Spanish courts. He died mostly broke while Cerreño settled in Lima to eventually flee the slave rebellions that were part of the Latin American wars for independence in the 1810s.
One of the book’s key points is the connection between white republicanism and chattel slavery. We know the U.S. side of this–southern slaveholders created a white male republicanism based upon the ownership of African people, which expanded rapidly after the invention of the cotton gin. But this was also true in South America, where trade liberalization in the late 18th century meant the trade in Africans and where anti-Spanish colonial agitation often revolved around wanting more trade in African slaves. Like in the U.S., the Age of Liberty was built upon the Age of Slavery. Grandin certainly doesn’t skimp on the brutality, including in the slave trade. The description of the seal trade leaves far too little to the imagination. And those seal knives intended to separate skin from muscle? Well, let’s just say they can be used on rebellious slaves as well.
I recognize that this review is more a thought piece about the nature of historical writing in the present than an in depth discussion of Grandin’s points. This post is long enough and there’s a lot of contours of the book I haven’t discussed at all. But it’s a very good book and you should read it. It’s one of the jewels of this golden age of left-leaning historical writing. Read and learn.