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Decentering Freedom

Greg Grandin’s new book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World has garnered a lot of attention, with reviews in almost every major American news outlet. It is truly a remarkable tour de force, doing something much modern anthropology seeks to do but rarely does satisfactorily: it portrays the complex interconnectedness of things with elegance and grace. The book’s ambition and scope is quite astonishing. Using the true story of the slave revolt which inspired Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno he then proceeds to write a book which is, in parts, political philosophy, literary theory, social/natural/medical/economic/intellectual history, and even gripping tale of adventure.1 The story stretches from China to New England to Africa and even India without ever running aground. As much as I had enjoyed his earlier book, Fordlandia, I felt it had got bogged down in the jungle with Henry Ford’s ambitious Amazon city. Not so with this book.

Beyond the story that frames the book, Grandin’s encyclopedic approach to history and narrative also seems to be inspired by Melville. He explores Melville’s world and sheds light on some things that had always puzzled me, like Melville’s views on slavery. The historical relationship between these two concepts in the early modern world frames much of the story. Not being a scholar of Latin America, I was also particularly interested in his account the role that the slave trade played in shaping that part of the world.

To get an idea of the book I recommend reading Grandin’s short essay “What the Modern World Owes Slavery.” Here are a couple of choice excerpts.

On medicine:

Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves.

. . . Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable. In either case, they identified types of fevers, learned how to decrease mortality and increase fertility, experimented with how much water was needed for optimum numbers of slaves to survive on a diet of salted fish and beef jerky, and identified the best ratio of caloric intake to labor hours. Priceless epidemiological information on a range of diseases — malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, and so on — was gleaned from the bodies of the dying and the dead.

And psychology:

you can see how doctors dealing with the slave trade began taking concepts like melancholia out of the hands of priests, poets, and philosophers and giving them actual medical meaning.

. . . To diagnose enslaved Africans as suffering from nostalgia and melancholia was to acknowledge that they had selves that could be lost, inner lives that could suffer schism or alienation, and pasts over which they could mourn.

And the economy of non-slaveholding notherners:

Slavery, as the historian Lorenzo Green argued half a century ago, “formed the very basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.”

Reading this book you will see hints of Foucault, Appadurai, and other popular social theorists, but without the jargon that usually accompanies such topics, making it a great book for teaching. There is much more to say about this book, but I’ll just end by suggesting that you might also consider getting this book as an audiobook, which is how I “read” it. Not every nonfiction book works well as an audiobook, but this one does.2


  1. The photo at the top is from Serge Roullet’s 1968 film, “Benito Cereno.” 
  2. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann recently wrote about audiobooks for the New York Times

2 thoughts on “Decentering Freedom

  1. Consider, for example, the way the advancement of medical knowledge was paid for with the lives of slaves. […] Corps of doctors tended to slave ports up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Some of them were committed to relieving suffering; others were simply looking for ways to make the slave system more profitable.

    That’s not dissimilar to military medicine, is it? One of the reasons I enjoy the film Regeneration/Behind the Lines is its portrayal of the inherent tensions in W. H. R. Rivers’ treatment of what we would now call PTSD. He wants to help alleviate his patients’ suffering, but successfully doing so results in their return to the front lines.

  2. A few points on this topic. The plantation owner, Simon Taylor, in Jamaica, realizing the end of slavery opted for a scheme that would transform the African-Jamaican population to ensure continued White rule on the island while maintaining the sugar cane production. This process of “blanching” races indicates the level of understanding prevalent at the time how fast individuals from one geographical region could be biologically transformed into another ethnic identity. Indeed, in the late 18th century, the term “creole” applied to English men living most of their lives in the Caribbean.
    A second point of interest anthropologists should investigate is the literature produced by slaves and former slaves who travelled with their owners around the world. These sorts of “travel narratives” highlight not only the Atlantic triangle from a more or less existential perspective, but also allow the voice of people to express themselves in their own terms.

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