Long before 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, or even Amistad were nominated for Academy Awards, there was another suspenseful story about the brutalities of the slavery—one that so stunned Ralph Ellison that he borrowed a line from it for an epigraph to his groundbreaking novel on race in America, The Invisible Man.

In 1855, Herman Melville published the novella Benito Cereno, which follows Amasa Delano, an American sea captain who answers a call for help from a battered ship off the coast of Chile, in the South Pacific. As he observes the strange social interactions between the vessel’s white crew and black slave “cargo,” Delano—a liberal opposed, in theory, to slavery—finds himself yearning for a servant to closely attend to his needs the way the African Babo seems to dote upon his master, the Spanish captain Benito Cereno.

But then—and here’s a SPOILER ALERT for the ages—it turns out that the Africans are actually in charge, having overcome their captors, killed their owner, and taken control of the ship more than 50 days earlier. They’re merely performing the roles of slaves—with Cereno playing along in fear for his life—in order to fool Delano into handing over some much-needed supplies.

book cover: The Empire of Necessity

In his new book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (Metropolitan Books), NYU history professor Greg Grandin investigates the actual 1805 incident on which Melville’s story is based, weaving together the backstories of the two real-life captains and the slaves who bested them—West African Muslims who endured not just the horrific Middle Passage and capture by pirates, but also a march across the Argentine pampas and the Andes before boarding a slave ship bound for Lima. What emerges is a comprehensive portrait of the ways in which, as Grandin puts it, “the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery,” with the slave trade fueling a liberalizing global economy in the wake of democratic revolutions in Europe and the New World.

NYU Stories recently sat down to talk with Grandin about this dark chapter of human history, one of the great plot twists of all time, and what it means to truly be free.

We’ve all heard that slavery was an important economic engine, but exactly who stood to gain from it, and how?
Slaves were central, in economic terms, to unleashing the forces of the market revolution. They were capital. They were credit. They were commodities. They were labor. They were consumers. They were all of those things—but slavery was more than an economic system. It was also an emotional system, a psychic system. For a rising merchant class, slaves become status symbols. The way one was waited on, particularly by house slaves and servants, became a sign of wealth. And for a declining aristocratic class trying to stem the erosion of their political power, slaves become objects of nostalgia for a fixed and fading world that existed before the unleashing of the market revolution. So there are different ways slavery served the emotional needs of this new world being born.

In your research, you found out something that Melville didn’t know—that the Africans who overthrew their captors to take over the ship in 1805 were Muslim. Why does that matter?
It doesn’t change the Melville story, but it gives a richer understanding of the moral universe of these West Africans, and how their beliefs might have helped them survive this horrible ordeal. Islam, as a universal, prophetic religion, promised deliverance and allowed for some kind of reconciliation between pre-destination and free will. There’s also this great Sufi aphorism from the 11th century that says that the true meaning of freedom is the perfection of slavery. To say that the West Africans were thinking about this is pure speculation, but it’s true that after seizing the ship, in order to achieve true freedom, they had to perform the role of slaves. Islam might have helped them to make sense of that dependency.

photo: Greg Grandin

You write that though real-life captain Amasa Delano wasn’t directly involved in the slave trade, his chosen industry, “sealing,” was also a barbaric one that fueled conspicuous consumption. How so?
Sealing was the United States’ first experience in boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders. It started when artisans figured out a technique to separate the inner downy pelt of a seal from the coarse hair, and that’s when they began to use them to make capes, vests, and mittens. So in the 1790s, New Englanders went down into the islands off of Chile, where there were millions of seals, in a mad rush. They killed hundreds of thousands and brought them to China to trade for spice, porcelain, and tea. But the market became glutted. There were so many seal skins that they were just left to rot in the rain. They couldn’t fit into the warehouse. The price began to drop, and as it did the only thing sealers could do was accelerate the killing, so in this staggeringly short period of time, seals just disappeared off of island after island after island.

In a recent op-ed for the New York Times, you wrote about the tendency of some of President Obama’s detractors to portray him as similar to the Melville character Babo—someone who isn’t what he appears to be. What can Benito Cereno, and the real history that inspired it, teach us about our own time?
I think Melville had his finger on the pulse of a new kind of racism being formed—a racism that wasn’t rooted in religious or philosophical doctrines but had more to do with the emotional need of a free man to define his freedom in relation to the absolute servitude of another. The cult of individualism, the kind of racism that emerged out of chattel bondage, didn’t end with emancipation, but continued on and mutated into a kind of individual supremacy that’s still a very strong current within the United States. Whether people are racist or not, they’re seeing the world in categories created in a system that was built on slavery. That cult of individualism that galvanizes the right in its most extreme, but also political culture more broadly, comes out of a world that slavery built. That’s why we can’t really escape the rhetoric of the Civil War—why, when people want to organize against Obamacare or complain about gun control or the environment, they can’t help but talk about freedom and slavery.

What was Melville’s position on slavery?

That’s the big debate right? There are left Melvillians who want to claim that Melville is this critic of empire, slavery, and individualism. And then there are right Melvillians who want to say he was really more of a metaphysician—he cared more about cosmic concerns, like finding meaning in a meaningless society. As a historian, I don’t know what Melville thought—he left no letters or diaries about why he wrote Benito Cereno. But what I’m trying to do is transcend the debate. When Melville was talking about metaphysics—how to assign meaning in a world that seemed to be meaningless; how to reconcile individual democracy with some kind of moral structure; how to confront the obliteration of the self in a godless universe—those concerns were connected to slavery. Slavery is about deception. Slavery is about the obliteration of the self in a larger system. That is slavery. So even when Melville wasn’t talking about slavery per se, his metaphysical concerns still had a concrete manifestation in the real world.

Did you guess the ending to Benito Cereno when you first read it?
No! A friend of mine recommended I teach the novella in a class on U.S. and Latin American history, and I didn’t know the ending when I assigned it. Melville’s narrative worked for me—it’s strange enough and written so effectively that I had no idea the West Africans were actually running things. It’s kind of like Ridley Scott’s Alien: You know you’re on the ship and you know something’s wrong, but you don’t know what.

From the Oscar-nominated 12 Years a Slave to James McBride’s National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, slavery seems to be a hot topic in the culture this year. Any idea why?
I don’t know—maybe it’s that we’re at the tail end of the Obama presidency, which seems in certain ways to have failed. Certainly the idea that his election signaled a post-racial society is hard to hold on to. Everything from the Trayvon Martin case to the statistics of African-Americans in poverty points to the ongoing salience of racism. So maybe this history is coming back as a result, as we grapple with the realities of a kind of post-hope-and-change hangover.