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The story of a remarkable slave rebellion that illuminates America’s struggle with slavery and freedom during the Age of Revolution and beyond

One morning in 1805, off a remote island in the South Pacific, Captain Amasa Delano, a New England seal hunter, climbed aboard a distressed Spanish ship carrying scores of West Africans he thought were slaves. They weren’t. Having earlier seized control of the vessel and slaughtered most of the crew, they were staging an elaborate ruse, acting as if they were humble servants. When Delano, an idealistic, anti-slavery republican, finally realized the deception, he responded with explosive violence.

Drawing on research on four continents, The Empire of Necessity explores the multiple forces that culminated in this extraordinary event—an event that already inspired Herman Melville’s masterpiece Benito Cereno. Now historian Greg Grandin, with the gripping storytelling that was praised in Fordlandia, uses the dramatic happenings of that day to map a new transnational history of slavery in the Americas, capturing the clash of peoples, economies, and faiths that was the New World in the early 1800s.

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Quotes & Awards

  • The Empire of Necessity is scholarship at its best. Greg Grandin’s deft penetration into the marrow of the slave industry is compelling, brilliant, and necessary.”

    Toni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize–winning author

  • “Greg Grandin has done it again. Starting with a single dramatic encounter in the South Pacific he has shown us an entire world: of multiple continents, terrible bondage, and the dream of freedom. This is also a story of how one episode changed the lives of a sea captain and a great writer from the other end of the earth. An extraordinary tale, beautifully told.”

    Adam Hochschild, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Engaging, richly informed…He describes his unsettling panorama in a restrained manner, avoiding exaggeration and allowing facts—many of them horrific—to tell the story. In doing so, he has produced a quietly powerful account that Melville himself would have admired.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “Powerful…Through a remarkable feat of research he establishes a strong narrative line that gives the book coherence and momentum…A significant contribution to the largely impossible yet imperative effort to retrieve some trace of the countless lives that slavery consumed.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • “A great and moving story.”

    Washington Post

  • “Engrossing, well researched, and beautifully written…A rigorously sourced work of scholarship with a suspenseful narrative structure that boomerangs back and forth through time. Grandin has delivered a page-turner.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • “Grandin’s insightful, poetic explorations offer profound insight into a critical moment in the modern development of the struggle between freedom and enslavement.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “Grandin offers a splendid account of the 1804 slave rebellion made famous in Herman Melville’s novel Benito Cereno…Deeply researched and well-written, this book will appeal to general readers and specialists alike.”

    Kirkus Review (starred review)

  • “This is a harrowing story of Muslim Africans trekking across South America and ultimately a unique window on to the nature of the slave trade, the maritime worlds of the early nineteenth century, [and the] lives lived in between slavery and freedom all over the Americas…Grandin is a master of grand history with new insights.”

    David W. Blight, author of Frederick Douglass: A Life

  • “In this multifaceted masterpiece, Greg Grandin excavates the relentlessly fascinating history of a slave revolt to mine the enduring dilemmas of politics and identity in a New World where the Age of Freedom was also the Age of Slavery. This is that rare book in which the drama of the action and the drama of ideas are equally measured.”

    Philip Gourevitch, coauthor of the The Ballad of Abu Ghraib

  • “Luis Moreno’s voice fits the storyline: expansive and emotive as needed, flowing with the Spanish words and phrases, straightforward and descriptive as he unwinds the unique circumstances of the revolt and its aftermath.”

    AudioFile

  • A Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week, January 2014
  • A New York Times Editor’s Choice
  • One of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2014
  • Winner of the Bancroft Prize in 2015
  • Shortlisted for the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction
  • A San Francisco Chronicle Top Shelf Pick
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About the Author
Author Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, as well as Kissinger’s Shadow, Empire’s Workshop, The Empire of Necessity, and The Blood of Guatemala. A professor of history at New York University and a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, he has served on the UN Truth Commission and has written for the Nation, Los Angeles Times, New Statesman, and New York Times.