Who Ain't a Slave?Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: slavery, African history
Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. His latest book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, will be published next month by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.
On a late February day in 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano, master of the Perseverance, a sealer out of Boston, boarded a distressed Spanish ship carrying about 70 West African men, women, and children. Delano spent about nine hours on the vessel, called the Tryal. He talked with its sailors, who were few in number, doled out water to its black-skinned men and women, and took charge of organizing repairs. And all that time, he couldn't see that it was the West Africans, whom he thought were slaves, and not the Spaniard who introduced himself as captain, who were in command.
Nearly two months earlier, the West Africans, who had been loaded at Valparaiso, Chile, bound to be sold in Lima, rose up, executing most of the Tryal's crew and passengers, along with the slave trader who was taking them to Peru. Led by an elderly man named Babo and his son Mori, the rebels ordered Benito Cerreño, the ship's owner and captain, to sail them to Senegal.
Cerreño stalled, cruising first north and then south, before running into the Perseverance. The rebels began to ready their weapons for a fight. But then Babo had an idea.
The West Africans let Delano come on board and acted as if they were still slaves. Mori stayed at Cerreño's side and feigned at being a humble and devoted servant. Cerreño pretended he was still in charge, telling Delano stories about storms, doldrums, and fevers to account for the state of his ship and the absence of any officer aside from himself.
The alabaster-skinned Delano later wrote that he found himself surrounded by scores of Africans and a handful of Spanish and mulatto sailors telling their "stories" and sharing their "grievances" in a babel of languages. They spoke in Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani, and Spanish, a rush of words indecipherable in its details but soothing to Delano in its generalities, convincing the New Englander that the desperation he was witnessing was real, that he wasn't being lured into a pirate's trap....
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