I started reading this because Baden insisted I read something relevant to the countries we were travelling through. I grudgingly selected Greg Grandin’s book and found it pretty enlightening.
You’ve heard of Moby Dick but you may not have come across Herman Melville’s story entitled Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno was written in 1855 and is based on an account in the memoir of a Spanish mariner from 1805. In this time the slave trade from Africa to America was fueling huge fortunes in Europe and the US. It was also causing a moral dilemma. Greg Grandin uses Melville’s story as a framework for his book.
Originally released as a serial, Melville writes about the slaves on board a ship bound from Buenos Aires to Lima who revolted and took over. As they ran out of food a Spanish mariner came upon them and the slaves forced their captain to pretend nothing was wrong in order to receive supplies from the Spaniard. Just as the Spaniard was to return to his vessel, the captain of the doomed ship leapt from the deck and the truth was revealed.
Grandin explores the human toll of the slave trade; political and economic drivers; and moral conflict between the practice and the US constitution using characters from the story, both the true and fictional versions. Sometimes this can feel slightly disjointed but does give the book a multi-layered narrative structure.
Lima and Buenos Aires were the most important cities for the slave trade in South America. Reading this book while riding toward them was illuminating and saddening. More than 12,500,000 Africans were brought to America and of those only 100,000 have been identified with original African names, “a figure that gives a sense of the magnitude of the historical silence.”
We cycled through the port area near Lima known as Callao. I thought of the historical descriptions in the book and imagined all the growling trucks were carrying African people rather than timber or refrigerators. It makes it feel too terrifyingly real.
“Seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.”