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Originally published Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 5:06 AM

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‘The Empire of Necessity’: No free people on this slave ship

Greg Grandin’s new book “The Empire of Necessity” tells the true story of a slave rebellion that became the basis for Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno.”

Special to The Seattle Times

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“The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World”

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan Books, 368 pp., $30

Greg Grandin sets his introduction to “The Empire of Necessity” on the deck of the Tryal, a ship taken over by slaves and captained, until the rebellion, by Benito Cerreno.

That’s a name that will be familiar to readers of Herman Melville, as the author of “Moby Dick” used a variation of it (“Benito Cereno”) as the title of a novella he wrote in 1855.

Melville based his story on the events aboard the Tryal on Feb. 20, 1805, when an American captain boarded the ship and the Africans tried to hide their rebellion by acting as slaves while standing close to Capt. Cerreno and survivors of his crew to make sure they played their parts in concealing who were the masters.

In Melville’s telling, the story reveals itself in the mind and through the eyes of Amasa Delano, the American captain who eventually discovers the ruse and reverses the slave-master relationship after a bloody battle.

Grandin, author of “Fordlandia,” mostly sticks to history, expanding the story to include where the slaves came from in Africa, how they ended up on the Tryal off the coast of Chile and what happened after the rebellion was put down.

Grandin admits in the book’s notes that his research for it took him off on tangents. While tangents may make for thorough research, they don’t do much for a narrative arc.

“The Empire of Necessity” (the phrase comes from Melville) comes off as a series of history lessons, all fascinating and engaging, but which often strand the reader on, say, a wind-swept island off Chile, learning how the slaughter of seals to provide Europeans with capes and wallets wiped out many of the islands’ populations within years.

Or maybe the lesson tracks the movement of slaves to, across and around South America, offering a view of slavery different from the more well-known one of antebellum slavery in the American South.

Grandin also inserts “interludes” about Melville’s thoughts on slavery and his metaphorical use of blacks in slavery to represent the individual in a meaningless universe.

Occasionally Grandin airlifts in a reminder that there is a story to follow here, and the result is a book that — surprise — goes off on tangents.

For Grandin, the story of the Tryal, especially the deception used to try to conceal the onboard rebellion and its mixing of the roles of slave and master, is a way of looking at slavery overall. “There were no free people on board the Tryal,” Grandin writes.

While slavery was the capital that financed and built a society that afforded freedom to “masters,” it has proved impossible to escape, its effects lingering through society’s history.

“The Empire of Necessity” is good on history and poor on storytelling. But then, there’s always Melville for that.

John B. Saul is a Seattle Times editor who has taught journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and the University of Washington.

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