Whalers v. Sealers

Nicholas Guyatt

  • Empire of Necessity: The Untold History of a Slave Rebellion in the Age of Liberty by Greg Grandin
    Oneworld, 360 pp, £25.00, May 2014, ISBN 978 1 78074 410 0

In 1805 there was a slave rebellion aboard the Tryal, a Spanish ship sailing from Valparaíso to Lima. This wasn’t unusual: hundreds of similar revolts broke out across the shipping lanes of the Atlantic, and nearly all ended in failure. There were rare exceptions: the rebels who seized the Cuban schooner Amistad in 1839 had the good fortune to make landfall in Long Island rather than Charleston, and were eventually released from custody and returned to Africa. The slaves aboard the Tryal weren’t so lucky. After drifting for weeks off the Chilean coast they were apprehended by the crew of another vessel. Several died fighting, many more were executed by the Spanish authorities, and the rest were sold at auction.

The Tryal revolt was put down by a Massachusetts sea captain called Amasa Delano, who described what happened in a memoir published in 1817. As Delano prepared to board the ship, the Africans, led by a father and son called Babo and Mori, ordered the surviving Spanish crew to act as if nothing had happened. Mori pretended that he was the personal servant of the Tryal’s terrified captain, Benito Cerreño. During Delano’s agonisingly protracted tour of the Tryal, Mori shadowed his ‘master’ whom he’d threatened to stab if the ruse was discovered. When Delano was about to return to his own boat Cerreño seized his chance: he leaped overboard from the gunwale and all hell broke loose. Delano’s memoir sold very few copies, despite the lurid story. But Herman Melville came across it decades later and reworked the themes of deception and desperation into one of his most famous works. ‘Benito Cereno’ was serialised in Putnam’s Magazine in 1855, just as the crisis over slavery in the United States was reaching its critical phase.

The Atlantic slave trade lasted four centuries but around half of the 12 million Africans who arrived in the Americas came in the relatively short period between 1776 and 1866. Although most ended up in the Caribbean, Brazil or the US, a large number were channelled to the Spanish possessions south of Brazil. For the officials responsible for governing Peru, Chile and the new viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, slavery offered a means of consolidating their rule in distant regions in the face of challenges from European rivals, indigenous people and truculent colonists. The decision to expand slavery in South America strengthened the arguments of imperial reformers and liberal merchants for freer trade, and by the early 19th century Spaniards in the Southern Cone enjoyed unprecedented commercial freedom. At least some of the Tryal rebels arrived in Montevideo (their first port in South America) aboard a Liverpool-flagged slave ship that had been captured off the coast of West Africa by a French privateer. Greg Grandin, whose new book recovers the Tryal rebellion and its literary afterlives, likes the image of a French Jacobin ship towing an English slave vessel towards the Spanish-American frontier. These ‘floating contradictions of the Age of Revolution’ brought slavery and liberty into uncomfortable proximity.

Slaves in the Río de la Plata, Chile and Peru were spared the proto-industrial sugar estates of Bahia or Cuba. They were conscripted by Spanish officials to gather the wheat harvest in January, but for the rest of the year worked as domestic servants and day labourers or in the emerging leather industry. The slaves who would end up on the Tryal were bought in Montevideo in 1804 by a man called Alejandro de Aranda. He took them across the Andes to Valparaíso – a journey three times cheaper than sending them by sea around the Cape – with the intention of moving them on to Lima, to be sold again. As they reached the most dangerous section of the pass, Aranda relied on their desire to stay alive and removed their neck chains.

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