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The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World

3.96  ·  Rating Details  ·  467 Ratings  ·  102 Reviews
"Compelling, brilliant and necessary." —Toni Morrison

From the acclaimed author of Fordlandia, the story of a remarkable slave rebellion that illuminates America’s struggle with slavery and freedom during the Age of Revolution and beyond.

One morning in 1805, off a remote island in the South Pacific, Captain Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, climbed aboard a distresse
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 14th 2014 by Metropolitan Books (first published January 5th 2014)
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Nov 23, 2013 Anne rated it it was amazing
Shelves: first-reads
I was lucky to receive this book from a Goodreads giveaway. The importance of this book is really not clear in the description on the book's cover. This is the history of a slave rebellion in the South Pacific that is thwarted by a New England ship Captain, Amasa Delano. However, this book is so much more than the story of that rebellion. Mr. Grandin uses that story as a springboard to illustrate and explore the history of freedom and slavery in all of the Americas. The rebellion takes place in ...more
Mar 03, 2014 Cynthia rated it really liked it
Benito Cereno was a 19th century sea captain. “Benito Cereno” is also a novelette that was written by Herman Melville Melville’s story was based on a true life slaver, Cereno, and a slave uprising that Melville’s relative, another sea captain named Amasa Delano, happens upon in the Pacific in 1805. Slave uprisings happened but were fairly unusual but on Cereno’s ship, the Tryal, the Muslim slaves decide to murder their captors and requisition the ship to take them back to Africa. Most of this ta ...more
Feb 20, 2014 Fred rated it it was amazing
Among the finest, most compelling works I've ever read on Latin America, on slavery, and on Melville. Also a complement or prequel to another great recent work on slavery, Walter Johnson's 'River of Dark Dreams.'
Feb 27, 2014 Richard rated it it was amazing
Frankly, much about this book was really uncomfortable to read. And yet paradoxically, I finished its almost 300 pages (including reading most of its many footnotes) in a very few days. The book's surface narrative follows the seafaring peregrinations of New Englander Amasa Delano, focusing-in on his 1805 encounter with a slave rebellion on the ship Tryal off the coast of Chile. The undercurrents of the book were about the enslavement of one race by another; about inner darkness invading the sou ...more
Oct 29, 2013 Justin rated it it was amazing
I'll be reviewing this for the Historical Novel Review. Until then, I can say that this was a powerful book. It will be one to reread to fully appreciate its depths. Highly recommended.
I expected this book to have more information earlier in the book about the slave rebellion it is supposed to be about. Instead, I found myself reading more about slavery in general, especially in South America. I did find parts of it interesting, and learned more about the economic impact of slavery on New England even while slavery there was not common, and about slavery before the southern US was as heavily mired in it as it would become.

However, the writing felt disjointed to me. It didn't f
Joseph Hoff
I didn't choose to read this book because of the topic but, rather, because of the author. I'm a great admirer of the work of Greg Grandin. That said, I was hooked after the first few pages of this book. Mr. Grandin tells this story like no one else could. Amazing read -- amazing scholarship!
Feb 25, 2014 Kerim rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
One of the best popular history books I've ever read. It is truly masterful how he weaves together so many elements into a truly gripping story that never fails to hold the reader's attention. It is also an important book, decentering the history of slavery by showing the links between the United States and Latin America, as well as for how it shows the roots of modernity in the slave trade.
Mar 28, 2015 Cathy rated it really liked it
I was interested in the book because it is about the real events that inspired Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno." The story goes that slaves on a slave ship rebelled, killed much of the crew, and were trying to get back to Africa when they came in sight of an American ship hunting seals. The captain of that ship saw the run-down state of the slaver, and knowing nothing else about it, brought food and water and boarded it. The slaves came up with a scheme to deceive him - they pretended to be sla ...more
Mar 13, 2016 Jennifer rated it it was amazing
The Empire of Necessity is an exhaustive, meticulously documented, and fascinating look at the role of the slave trade in the economic and social development of the Americas. Grandin's focus is the real slave uprising and elaborate maritime deception that inspired Melville's novella Benito Cereno. But the book goes far beyond simply recounting this highly charged event: in the process of exploring the backgrounds of the people involved (including, impressively, tracking down the names and origin ...more
Michael Berman
Dec 28, 2014 Michael Berman rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
A truly fascinating book that puts slavery in a global context. Using a slave rebellion on a ship off the coast of Chile as the central event, the author shows how the economic institution of slavery extended its tendrils throughout the world, making virtually anyone participating in any marketplace complicit in the evils of slavery. Sobering and fascinating, there are some obvious parallels to everyone's complicity in climate change (he writes sitting at a computer with the lights on and the fu ...more
Mar 22, 2014 Naum rated it it was amazing
Fascinating, gripping in-depth exploration of the players and context of the 1805 event where Captain Amasa Delano (FDR ancestor) & ship encounter a Spanish ship, off the coast of S. America, whose slaves mutinied and enacted a ruse that captain Cerreno was still in charge, and not them actually calling the shots. The incident was immortalized in a Herman Melville (*Moby Dick* author) novella, though it takes some liberties with Delano's memoir recollection of the event.

Grandin possesses a c
Eric McLean
Nov 30, 2015 Eric McLean rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed the intertwining of the history and literature. Grandin retells the story of a slave revolt that was later retold in a work of "fiction" by Herman Melville. And the result is a mix of beautiful and revolting. There are some oddities about this book and it does wander all over the place, from a history of slavery to sealing to Charles Darwin. But it all comes together as part of the story, the backdrop, for this particular story.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is intere
Bo Commander
Dec 16, 2013 Bo Commander rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I was fortunate enough to receive an advanced copy of this book, and enjoyed it thoroughly. While the book provides some good backstory of all the major and minor role players in the Tryal debacle, I felt the best part of this book was the insights into the times in which the event occurred including slavery and literary works of the period. Special attention is placed on Melville and his Benito Cereno, which is based on the root occurrence of this book, and provides some worthwhile commentary o ...more
Dec 15, 2015 Marks54 rated it really liked it
I started this book earlier in the year when I was reading some other books on the Underground Railroad and the Reconstruction period. It is an example of a growing way to write history for a more popular audience that has been pioneered by writers like Erik Larson. Instead of writing the history of some topic or institution or person, take an event and then write up and explain all of the varied historical strands that come together in the event. This development has received a further twist wh ...more
Don O'goodreader
Feb 15, 2015 Don O'goodreader rated it really liked it
About 210 years ago, there was a slave revolt aboard the Tryal off the coast of Chile. The novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is based on this incident. Now over 150 years after Melville published, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin is an historical accounting of the circumstances around that slave revolt.

The irony of this retelling is that even though Grandin makes a strong case for the literacy of the slaves, nothing is left in the historical record in their voice, so in spite of th
Jun 26, 2014 Julie rated it it was amazing
In Empire of Necessity, Greg Grandin weaves together the story of one 1804 slave rebellion and the Melville story it inspired, contextualizing the event in the global history of slavery and the slave trade and the broader cultural environment of the early 19th century. The result was a rich and readable book that I couldn't put down.

This book was a model for me as a historian and a writer. Grandin demonstrates that popular history can be engrossing and intellectually rigorous. As an Americanist,
Mar 04, 2014 Linda rated it really liked it
A New England ship captain, waiting at a small island off the coast of Chile, found a ship floating in the water near his and lowered his boat and went to see what trouble the ship was in. On board he found a Spanish captain who was followed by what he described as a loyal body servant who never left his side. Eventually the truth came out that the ship was a Spanish trading ship carrying a cargo of slaves that had raised a rebellion. That New England ship captain, named Amasa Delano (an ancesto ...more
Feb 18, 2014 Colleen rated it it was amazing
'The Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery.' 12.5 million African slaves were transported to the Americas. 'Freedom' has no meaning until set against 'slavery'. Behind The Enlightenment and 'human rights', was the right to own slaves and make money on the trade. The Spanish slave traders pushed for 'libertad' so they could sell slaves in more places than the Spanish Crown permitted. European and American traders had loans and insurance companies that backed their voyages, so they had to mak ...more
Feb 07, 2014 jordan rated it really liked it
One should recognize the obvious from the outset, Greg Grandin possesses writing talents that rival those of an excellent novelist. His gifts -- a sharp eye for detail, a sense of narrative structure, and deftness for prose -- are all fully on display in his latest work. He combines these talents with his obvious skills as a historical researcher, which allow him to thread together material from an almost dizzying array of sources. All that said, and the book did offer a fascinating read, his hi ...more
Feb 18, 2014 Larry rated it liked it
The Tryal, like the Amistad thirty-five years later, was a slave ship that fell into the hands of its slaves following a successful insurrection. Unlike the Amistad, the Tryal was retaken by the crew of the Perseverance, an American trading vessel. The trial trhat followed (in Concepcion) resulted in the execution of nine of the slaves and the return of the ship to its original owners. Herman Melville wrote a novells, "Benito Cereno" about the Tryal's captain (though the ships were renamed).

May 27, 2016 Pamela rated it really liked it
This is so much better than the author's previous work Fordlandia that I wonder why it was not a finalist for the Pulitzer instead. It tells the saga of the slave revolt on the ship Tryal off the coast of Chile in 1805. The plot by the slaves is finally foiled by New Englander Amarus Delano, Captain of the Perseverance, who comes across the Tryal becalmed in the South Pacific. Thinking he is assisting a ship in distress, he spends the next 8 hours aboard the ship, never realizing that it's in th ...more
Jun 02, 2014 Franz rated it it was amazing
This is a large book. Not in its length as much as in its complexity, thematic ambition, and narrative richness. Grandin uses Herman Melville’s Benito Cerreno as his inspiration and North Star to investigate the complicated meaning of slavery, liberty, and race in the New World.

Melvill’s novella is based on the memoirs of a Yankee captain, Amasa Delano. Melville describes an incident in 1804. It occurred in the South Pacific off an island near the coast of Chile involving a slave ship, called t
Apr 04, 2014 Kay rated it really liked it
This is a very interesting study of an 1804 slave uprising on a ship. The uniqueness is that this ship encountered another ship, and the slaves were able to control the captain and pose as if they were still slaves to fool the other ship's captain (they had a head start as he was a fairly oblivious fellow and as a man of his times couldn't imagine such a thing)during a day visit on the taken ship. Herman Melville took the original event and turned it into a novella although altered for his own l ...more
D.R. Oestreicher
Mar 03, 2015 D.R. Oestreicher rated it really liked it
About 210 years ago, there was a slave revolt aboard the Tryal off the coast of Chile. The novella Benito Cereno by Herman Melville is based on this incident. Now over 150 years after Melville published, The Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin is an historical accounting of the circumstances around that slave revolt.

This history draws on both the historical record and Melville's novella. Throughout the book, reference is made to Melville. I found the book reminiscent of Moby-Dick in structure. R
Rich Uncle Pennybags
Dec 06, 2015 Rich Uncle Pennybags rated it really liked it
The actual slave revolt in question is a relatively small percentage of the content. "Slavery made the modern world" seems like a shopworn observation but this book, which covers events on four continents, does a great job of making vivid just how true that was, especially in the New World. Illustrating the importance of slaves everywhere is a good corrective to our traditional pastoral tale about plantations (of course those existed too but there was a bigger system around them). I was also sur ...more
Feb 22, 2015 Harris rated it did not like it
I don't write reviews because I figure nobody cares about my suggestions, but I feel compelled to post something to deter others from making the same mistake I did in picking this one up. The description on Goodreads and the dust jacket make it sound like an exciting tale of mutiny followed by unexpected violence from an otherwise well-meaning captain. Having previously read my fair share of sea-faring novels, I was eager to get started on this one. However, the first 100 pages are dedicated to ...more
James Loftus
Jan 19, 2015 James Loftus rated it really liked it
Slavery is not a new subject for historians, but Grandin takes a new angle at it and ends up telling a pretty effective story, although I do think he falls short of closing the loop on his grand thesis in that end. The book centers its exploration of the South American portion of the early 19th century slave trade. It is unflinching and unsparing in the horrific details of what exactly the trade in human beings looked like. The book tells a larger global tale of international slavery by using th ...more
Oct 23, 2015 Jon rated it really liked it
Grandin explores the real life events that inspired Melville's Benito Cereno. The central narrative is a little too diffuse--the connection between the piece parts can sometimes puzzle. But the individual parts are all so compelling in themselves, especially Grandin's exploration of the paradox of the growth of slavery in a time when Western countries were simultaneously working towards more freedom, that the book is well worth a read. The book is scholarly and reportorial (instead of a You Are ...more
Jan 12, 2014 Pat rated it really liked it
Herman Melville's book Benito Cerreno is about a slave revolt on a ship in 1805. Grandin's book is about the history of the real-life event. Slave's revolt on a ship, The Trial, when their ship is discovered by another ship captain, Amasa Delano. Delano's men slaughter many of the slaves, and the rest are returned to slavery and denied their freedom.

Grandin's main focus is on the paradox of American countries who valued freedom and equality despite the fact that freedom and equality led to an in
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Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Professor of History at New York University, Grandin has published a number of other award-winning books, including Empire's Workshop, The Last Colonial Massacre, and The Blood of Guatemala.

Toni Morrison called Grandin's new work, The Empire of Necessi
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