Co-Written by Rachel Oxman and C.Russell
“In July 1952, in a cell block on Ellis Island, C.L.R. James began writing a book about Herman Melville. The Triinidadian journalist, historian and social theorist was awaiting deportation under the McCarran Act. Caught in an administration limbo of the “detainee,” James built his book, Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways on Melville’s abidingly pertinent observation that, in the United States, ‘freedom is the name for a thing which is not freedom’. What many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people.” — Richard Martin Oxman
“Freedom today means freedom to kill people of color with impunity here and abroad, to create entertainment, like what Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow has done with her new film Detroit, which gratuitously and insidiously nurtures violence directed at black people in the spirit of bread and circuses… and in the name of serving the agenda of the dominant culture. Like so much else of the film fare which comes our way today. It’s a very sick sign that so many citizens are cheering such cinematic horrors on, as they make our racial crisis much worse” — Annapurna Tosca Sriramarcel
On 20 February 1805 in the remote bay of an uninhabited island off the Chilean coast, Captain Amasa Delano from Massachusetts, reduced to seal-hunting for a bad living, anchored his ship the Perseverance to take on fresh supplies of water and fish. Suddenly another ship, the Tryal, flying the Spanish flag, lumbered out of the morning mist. She was in desperate condition, her rigging ragged, boats missing, her complement reduced to a handful of half-starved sailors and with a cargo of unchained west African slaves.
When Delano boarded the Tryal he found her half-mad captain, Benito Cerreño, supported on the arms of his Muslim body-slaves Babo and Mori. The Spaniard sobbed out a fragmented story of losing hands, boats, passengers and cargo to sickness and the elements. He appealed to the good-hearted American for help. Astonished by the lack of discipline aboard, which he attributed to Cerreño’s poor health and seamanship, Delano swiftly sent his longboat back to the Perseverance for supplies. An abolitionist, Delano was nonetheless impressed by the apparent devotion of the two slaves, father and son, who refused to be separated for a moment from their master.
Only as Delano left the ship did the charade collapse. Stumbling to the rail Cerraño leapt recklessly into the American’s departing boat babbling of his capture and torture by the Africans. The slaves had revolted, killing most whites aboard, including the trader who owned them. Under threat of death, Cerreño and the others were forced to play out a charade for Delano. As soon as he returned to his own ship the Yankee organized pursuit of the rebels. Ultimately they were caught, and the ringleaders hideously punished. The main cargo of salvaged slaves were put up for sale, whereupon they and the ship became subject to a prolonged legal battle between the two captains as to their ownership. All this was recorded in Delano’s memoirs, published in 1817 after his return to Boston and relative poverty. Soon after the publication (and commercial failure) of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville used Delano’s account as the substance of his powerful novella “Benito Cereno”, published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1855.
The story almost certainly appealed to the author as a parable examining the extraordinary relationship between slavery and liberty. As Greg Grandin points out in this remarkable The Empire of Necessity, the Age of Liberty and the Age of Slavery were the same. One simply could not have existed without the other. It all reminds me of the prison labor (a blatant modern form of slavery) which is mostly ignored these days, the work which makes unconscionable profits possible for the fabulously wealthy.
The inter-dependency of apparent opposites fascinated Melville as it did a number of 19th-century American writers, including the superbly civilized transcendentalists (such as Emerson and Thoreau). The lives of settlers revealed this tangled truth on a daily basis and reflected their fascination with nature in the raw. Perhaps — not entirely consciously — Melville understood Delano’s story to be a metaphor for his young nation.
The American conscience has always been troubled by its relationship to genocide and slavery and, as Grandin points out, Melville throughout his writing life examined the anomalies by which people lived, dependent on death to sustain life and on slavery to sustain freedom. The American revolution was financed in great part by slavery and the young American state probably could not have continued without it. “Freedom” had to be defined — and it was with the Constitution and daily practices of citizens — in a very narrow way.
Melville took Delano’s account and increased its narrative tensions, changing it only a little, but building up a dark, terrifying atmosphere as Delano gradually begins to realize something is wrong, and yet is unable, through his natural Yankee amiability, to determine what makes him so uneasy as black mothers sing a sinister dirge and west African carpenters clash axes they are apparently cleaning. His questions are answered mysteriously by Captain Cereno, so that the American suspects rudeness and social inadequacy in the Spaniard. Only in the dramatically improved ending, with Cereno and his men risking their lives in the sea and the enraged slaves pursuing them, does it dawn on him that those “rude blacks” he believed incapable of such subterfuge were actually the masters, and that his own prejudices allowed him to play into the hands of Babo and his rebels.
In a superbly argued and richly detailed account of the interdependencies of slavery and revolution throughout the Americas, as well as the religious traditions of Protestantism, Catholicism and Islam (many of the west Africans were educated Muslims), Grandin brings to vivid life the realities of the period, pointing out that, of the estimated 12,500,000 Africans carried to the Americas between 1514 and 1866, at least half were boarded after 4 July 1776. Many slaves were expert craftspeople; many, educated in madrasas, were literate; and some even owned or traded in slaves themselves. The slave trade boomed when it was liberalised by the Spanish crown after Spain failed to control the smuggling of black Africans. Numbers increased after 1800 as the US economy became increasingly reliant on slavery. The butchery of fur- and oil-bearing mammals on land and sea supplied the money to buy the slaves working the mines and fields of the New World, just as genocide of indigenous people supplied the land and precious metals. One person’s freedom was all but impossible without another’s servitude. [Sweatshops, anyone?]
Melville, coming from a New England abolitionist tradition, did not make an obvious allegory out of Delano’s account, and his black slaves are not shown to be particularly sophisticated or subtle – with the exception of Babo who, in a tense and sinister scene, insists on shaving the man he pretends is his master while Cereno, terrified, submits to his ministrations. When the truth is revealed the Africans become the savage, insensate force shown in DW Griffiths’s film Birth of a Nation, but even here we can imagine that such a howling, furious mob can easily represent the form the guilt-ridden white unconscious most expects retribution to take.
Terrified by the Haitian revolution, republican France did all it could to suppress the first black state in the Americas. That revolution affected the imaginations of other imperial powers, as well as those beginning to emerge from under the European heel. Events on the Tryal symbolised a great deal to even the most liberal whites, and continued to offer subject matter to writers other than Melville. Both Pablo Neruda and the Uruguayan experimental novelist Tomás de Mattos were attracted to the topic, depicting Babo as far more of a hero than did Melville. Grandin’s skill is that he can find metaphors that subtly reflect the vital dichotomies that pervade the American psyche.
But all this literary focus can — and usually does — distract a reader from the bottom line activist urgency at hand. All folks like to chat about this and that which aligns with their personal background and preferences. They watch films, read books and attend lectures about racism… and talk. And read articles like this, but do little except, maybe, participate in dated demonstrations. Most protests in 2017 (and slated for 2018) smack of being potential distractions from the daunting task of changing institutional racism.
Greg Grandin’s book is one of the most interesting ever written about slavery and the Atlantic World. I highly recommend it, but please don’t let your immersion in it keep you from interacting with others to discuss what the viable options are for our dealing with the fact that freedom is still the name for a thing which is not freedom.
Rachel Oxman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.