Greg Grandin on starting his research for 'Empire of Necessity'
I remember the moment I learned that Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno was largely based on an actual event. I had assigned the novella in a seminar I was teaching, a fictional illustration of Yankee and Spanish stereotypes. In preparation for the class, I was reading around Melville scholarship and read a footnote reporting that the deception the West Africans pulled off was a true story, which Melville learned of from the memoirs of the real Amasa Delano. I stared at the note for quite a while dumbstruck. It was like learning that Ridley Scott’s Alien is a true story. In both tales, you know there is evil on board the ship, but you don’t know what or where it is and then suddenly, about two thirds in, it explodes – in the case of Benito Cereno, in the form of Delano’s savage retaliation against the rebel-actors. The historical event – in which a group of desperate and dehydrated West Africans pull off an eight-hour pantomime of the master-slave relation – has the triangular symmetry of a play and the historical and psychological depth of a Greek epic. As I moved forward with the research for the book, I couldn’t help but think of another reference: Homer's Odyssey, which is not about slavery but tells of a character, Odysseus, who many scholars think represents the first modern self, because he has not only an inner life but the cunning to manipulate that life to create a schism between what is seen on the outside and what exists on the inside. "I am nobody," Odysseus says, playing with the subtleties of language to gull the Cyclops, and that's exactly what Babo in Melville’s story, and the rest of the slave-rebel troupe try to do to escape Delano¬—to act as if they were inconsequential slaves, nobodies hardly worth noticing. Aside from its sheer audacity, what is most fascinating about the ruse is how it exposed a larger falsehood, on which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea that slaves were loyal and simple-minded people who had no independent lives or thoughts or, if they did have an interior self, that it too was subject to their masters' jurisdiction, that it too was property. What you saw on the outside was what was on the inside. The West Africans used talents their masters said they didn't have –reason and discipline -- to give the lie to the stereotypes of what they were said to be -- dimwitted and faithful.
Greg Grandin is the author of the book Empire of Necessity (Oneworld)