Capitalism and Slavery: An Interview with Greg Grandin

Our notions of freedom emerge from and depend on slavery.

(George N. Barnard/ Wikimedia Commons)

(George N. Barnard/ Wikimedia Commons)

In 1855, Herman Melville published “Benito Cereno,” a novella about a New England ship captain who suppresses a slave rebellion onboard another ship discovered off the coast of Lima, Peru. The story takes place in Melville’s favorite setting, a ship in open water, and deals with one of his main preoccupations: slavery. As it happens, it is also true.

Thanks to Greg Grandin’s masterful Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, we now know that history.

The remarkable event at the core of the book is a nine-hour charade pulled off by insurgent slaves, led by two West Africans named Babo and Mori. Having been shipped across the Atlantic, led on a forced march over the Andes, and loaded onto another ship, the Tryal, they sail up the South American coast to the Lima slave market.

Somewhere off the coast of what would become Chile, the slaves rise up, murdering most of their captors and taking their captain, Benito Cerreño, hostage. They hope to force Cerreño to take them home to Senegambia. However, lacking adequate sea knowledge, they are unaware that the captain has managed to keep them in South American waters. Weeks after their revolt, still adrift in the Pacific near Lima, the rebels cross paths with a New England sealer, the Perseverance, whose captain, Amasa Delano, they allow to board.

At this point, they are starving and desperate. Aware their future hangs in the balance, Babo and Mori engage in a temporarily successful deception, pretending to be enslaved and forcing Cerreño to play captain. For most of the day, Delano believes that Cerreño remains in control of the ship, but when Delano returns to his own ship, Cerreño throws himself overboard, and the ruse is revealed.

Outraged, Delano and his men unleash a bloodbath so gruesome that it surprises Delano himself. Lances and weapons that had been used to kill and skin seals are used to equally brutal effect on the insurgents. Having retaken the Tryal, Delano sails on to a Chilean port, where some of the leading rebels are executed, and the rest are forced back into slavery. Delano eventually receives a reward for retaking the ship, but his failed sealing voyage has left him so deeply in debt that he ends life bankrupt. He sells his ship, leaves the sea behind, and writes the memoirs that became the basis for Melville’s novella.

Grandin’s book not only reconstructs these events, but in the process takes us from Duxbury, Massachusetts, to Bristol, England, to Senegambia, to Lima, to trace the complex threads of the slave trade that tied sealing captains like Amasa Delano to West African slave rebels like Babo and Mori to Latin American captains like Cerreño.

Along the way we learn how capitalism, slavery, and competing notions of freedom have been historically related; how doctors used slaves in early experiments with vaccination; how the slave trade was the chrysalis out of which came modern tort law and financial instruments; that Islam spread among slaves and became the basis for a number of slave revolts; that ships were floating tyrannies and seal hunters barbarians of a special sort; and much more.

What follows is an interview, edited and condensed, that Jacobin contributor Alex Gourevitch conducted with Grandin, a professor of history at New York University.


 Throughout, we have a sense that this is a book not just about the early entanglement of slavery and capitalism but about the persistence of that entanglement in our own time. In your mind, what exactly is the connection between the two?

The structuring event of the book has the triangular symmetry of a play, centering on Delano, Benito Cerreño, who was the captain of the ship but now prisoner of the West Africans, and Mori, a slave-turned-rebel-turned-actor who for a full day tricked Delano into believing he was Cerreño’s loyal slave. There are many details to the deception, but in broad terms I take it as exposing chattel slavery’s foundational deceit, that slaves had no interior lives or thoughts of their own, that what there was on the outside was what there was on the inside. They took the things they were said not to possess — cunning, discipline, intelligence — and gave the lie to the things they were said to be: loyal, simple minded, faithful.

That this event took place in 1804–5, the highpoint of what Spanish merchants called “free trade in blacks” — the privatization and deregulation of mercantile slavery, which, decades before the expansion of chattel bondage in the US south, kicked off the Atlantic World’s capitalist market revolution — allowed me to take this event and make, as you say, a larger argument about slavery and capitalism.

Much of that argument is embedded in the narrative and development of the characters, but here’s what I imagined myself arguing: Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

Enslaved peoples multiplied the fetish power of capital at least fivefold: they were labor, they were commodities, they were capital, collateral, and investment, they were consumers (since in many parts of South America, they were paid wages), and, in some areas, they were money, the standard on which the value of other goods was determined. They were also items of conspicuous consumption.

For a rising gentry, they were adornments of their masters’ inner worth. For a declining aristocracy, rocked by the market revolution, they were objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fading world of stability, when things were what they seemed to be. Slavery helped create many of the social, financial, religious, and legal institutions we live with today. But its role in firing the physic imagination of the West is what helps explain, as you put it, the persistence of the entanglement.

Could you say a bit more about how you think slavery intersected with other regimes of labor control? For instance, you note that Delano, though in some way anti-slavery, had and exercised legal power over his own sailors that was equally despotic. “Free” sailors seem to have worked in conditions not so different from slavery.

In Empire of Necessity, I try to look at this question mostly through the experience of sealing, and how the violence of resource extraction fused with the violence of slavery. But other historians, including Marcus Rediker and Emma Christopher, have revealed the way that labor relations on slave ships, as well as merchant and war vessels, represented a continuum between slave and free rather than a polarity. Rediker has argued that sailing ships were the first modern factories. They paid wages, concentrating workers together in a confined place, and synchronized their movements, in relation both to each other and to the most advanced seafaring technology.

At the same time, sailors on board a ship were subject to rule as feudal as the ancien régime and as brutal as the plantation. They could be flogged, tarred, feathered, keel-hauled — 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 yard arm.

Melville, in his novel White-Jacket, has a great description of how this terror helps consolidate the idea of race: “Thank God! I am a white,” says a sailor as he watches a mulatto seaman about to be whipped. But this distancing thought evaporates when the sailor remembers that he “had seen whites also scourged; for, black or white, all my shipmates were liable to that.”

Melville then takes the sailor a step beyond simple solidarity to realize the role terror plays in keeping men isolated from each other and racially divided: “Still, there is something in us, somehow, that, in the most degraded condition, we snatch at a chance to deceive ourselves into a fancied superiority to others, whom we suppose lower in the scale than ourselves.”

Another deep theme of the book is the complexity of the relationship between slavery and freedom. There are numerous figures who affirm the value of freedom, the right of self-government, and at least some of whom will go on to engage in republican revolution against colonial domination. Yet these same individuals show little to no sympathy for the slaves, or even participate in their re-enslavement.

What is your sense of what allowed these figures, who were as different as Amasa Delano, the New England ship captain, and Juan Martinez de Rozas, a South American official who would soon lead a republican revolt against Spanish masters, to hold these seemingly contradictory positions in their head?

That contradiction was the structuring contradiction of the day (and still is, no?).  Spanish-American merchants wanted “more liberty,” and they defined liberty as their right to buy and sell humans as they would. In the United States, Kentucky’s 1850 “bill of rights” stated that the “right of an owner of a slave to such a slave, and its increase, is the same, and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever.”

Is it your sense that the struggle against slavery itself, protracted and violent as it was, left us with the thought that we are free so long as we are not slaves? And in that way has limited our political imagination?

Others have made this point, including David Brion Davis, that the struggle over slavery, both for and against, had the effect of reifying slavery as the supreme evil, and reifying freedom — defined as the absence of formal slavery — as the supreme good. The issue is complex, obviously, since for enslaved peoples slavery was indeed the absolute evil, and they valued political freedom as a supreme good. And there were many abolitionists who viewed chattel slavery within a broader spectrum of exploitation, including wage slavery, that needed to be abolished. And I know that scholars of the US have shown that conceptions of US citizenship, and freedom, are layered, complex, and contradictory.

Still, as someone who has worked primarily on Latin America, I can’t help but compare that region’s deep tradition of social rights to the US’s antipathy to those rights, at least among a mobilized and consequential sector of the US public.

Take, for instance, Rand Paul’s recent comment that to believe in the right to health care is to believe in the right to slavery. It seems fairly clear to me that the Right’s inability to escape the rhetoric of slavery, its insistence on framing all political debate within the absolutist antinomy of freedom and slavery, and to assail not even social rights but even the idea of public policy as a form of enslavement, has something to do with the history of slavery in America.

The cult of white supremacy that grew out of that history evolved into today’s cult of individual supremacy. Paul’s statement would be totally incomprehensible to most people in Latin America, indeed the world, as silly as anything that came out of Alice’s mouth: “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary-wise; what is it wouldn’t be, and what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?” The problem is that the US has had a world of its own, so the idiocy of white supremacy, and its progeny, individual supremacy, is perpetuated.

It took the US decades to recognize Haiti as an independent nation, a concrete example of an abstraction: its refusal to yet recognize the empire of necessity. That title is from an epigraph Melville uses in another short story, which he himself probably wrote (though he credited to an “unpublished” manuscript in his possession): “Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.”

I read the phrase as Melville saying that the problem isn’t so much the paradox that our notions of freedom emerge from and depend on slavery. The problem is rather the denial of the paradox, the idea that we can escape it by skipping off into the West, or into the Pacific, or into a world of free trade.

But not all societies in the Americas founded on slavery have spent their post-abolition history trying to deny necessity. Latin America’s strong social democratic tradition, which guarantees to its citizens the right to health care, education, and a decent, dignified life, admits that there are limits to individual freedom. These pledges have often fallen short in practice, but the region’s rhetorical commitment to social rights at least acknowledges the debt freedom owes necessity.

Melville’s critique is part of a long tradition. Hegel said that it wasn’t “so much from slavery as through slavery that humanity was emancipated.” In the twentieth century, Arendt wrote that “man cannot be free if he does not know that he is subject to necessity, because his freedom is always won in his never wholly successful attempts to liberate himself from necessity.”

What is great about the deception that the West Africans stage is that they take Hegel’s master-slave dyad and turn it into a trio — Amasa Delano is a witness, but he is too blind to understand what he is witnessing. That blindness is rooted, I think, in his abstracted ideal of freedom, an ideal that defines itself in negative terms, in opposition to another’s slavishness.

I agree that there is something peculiar about the way the idea of freedom operates in the United States, and to a degree this is because some part of society still denies that we have to go through slavery to find freedom. But this is not the only, necessary consequence of the language we inherited.

For many decades after the civil war, and even before, the language was used to criticize other forms of unfreedom. For instance, criticism of “wage-slavery” was a central part of many post-bellum labor movements, especially the Knights of Labor. So opposing freedom to slavery was also a way of developing a sometimes very powerful language of social criticism.

Absolutely. There were many radical abolitionists who did see themselves fighting, to again cite David Brion Davis, a “righteous crusade” for the liberty of all, white and black, against all the “fatal flaws of the entire social system” that hindered the attainment of “human perfectibility.” Many advocated for women’s suffrage, free soil, the end of capital punishment, and temperance, and against “wage slavery.”

The ways in which this universal radical vision was contained are complex, and took place on multiple levels. Defenders of slavery were quick to point out the broader potential threat that the fight against chattel bondage contained, that it put on the table what one British slavery called “the general question of abolition itself” — that to abolish slavery was just the first step in doing away with all forms of hierarchy.

The Virginian ideologue, George Fitzhugh, for instance, charged that the “doctrine of human equality” espoused by the leader of the New York State Anti-Slavery Society, William Goodell, would destroy the Christian family. One must, said Fitzhugh, “revolt at the conclusions his abstract doctrines inevitably lead.” To a large degree the political success of abolition was based on deflecting this accusation, and on isolating chattel slavery as a singular evil, as, as Davis writes, the “very epitome of institutionalized violence and debasement of the human spirit.”

And while the concept of “wage slavery” might have been pushing the critique toward the universal, there was another idea that drove it in the opposite direction: “white slavery” became popularized in the 1830s. But decades earlier, those invested in keeping the skin trade a going concern saw its potential as a wedge issue, stoking resentment against abolitionists who seemed to care more about Africans than their own.

Despite this antebellum containment, the idea of freedom did, as you say, serve as a very powerful postbellum critique. As Eric Foner, Corey Robin, and others have written, “freedom” is the keyword of American politics. Control the concept, and you control the ideological ground of social struggle.We can and should highlight the Astroturf roots of Right, its funding by corporations and ideologues like the Koch brothers, but their vision of individual supremacy does have historical traction.

The fact that the US is the only nation in the world where organized social power mobilizes around the concept of freedom (and against slavery) to demand more austerity, more punishing “reforms,” can only be explained by the specific, central form slavery took in creating the nation.

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