Criminality and Custom

There is a scene in 12 Years a Slave upon which the camera rightly, excruciatingly lingers. Solomon Northrup is not quite hanged, though by any meaning of the word he is lynched. The plantation overseer has saved the owner’s property, a service that does not, however, require any kindness to the man. The hired hands who aimed to kill Northrup are driven off the land, threatened with murder themselves, but he is left trussed and in the noose, spared from extinguishment by stamina alone, propping himself up on tiptoe for hours, a whole day, while the business of the plantation proceeds: while his fellow enslaved go out to work in the morning and return at toil’s end, while the mistress steps onto the balcony for a breath, while others come and go, and candles are lit for the evening.

Torture at the center of a wide field of quotidian activity, undisturbed, is more than a metaphor. It is a symbol so searing as to be almost tangible, like a coin of the realm, stamped and passed on generation to generation, from slave time to Guantanamo and the dark contents of CIA files. In the movie, most of the people going through their paces are terrorized, some are indifferent, a few directly complicit. In long history, most figures on the periphery of the central crime carry around some mixture of indifference, itchy knowledge and their own relative bondage. About midway through this scene an enslaved woman hurries to Northrop and gives him a drink of water. We know she risks death or worse for this, so she represents rebellion.

It is enough to say that Hollywood was built on slavery because “the movies” are the effulgence of the modern world. There’s more to it than that, though, because Hollywood owes its modernism – its panoramas and stills, its original cued scores, night shots, panning shots, visual tricks, dramatic swells, even big budgets, high ticket prices and points in lieu of cash; such artistry and invention and blockbusterism as we recognize today – directly to the slaver’s sentiment.

Exactly 100 years ago D.W. Griffith began filming The Clansman. The movie that pioneered such heady territory, ultimately rechristened The Birth of a Nation, premiered on February 8, 1915, meaning its centenary will coincide with the movie industry’s season of self-empirenecessitycongratulation next year. That scene of Northrup’s misery evokes as well what was going on in Hollywood over the 100 years that it took to produce a single epic film whose sole subject is the experience of the person suffering at the center.

We now wait (how long?) for an American film that ventures beyond the body in pain to tell a rebel’s tale, or to trace the ugliness from root to unexceptional branch – say, the slaver origins of insurance and, thus, generations of Aetna adjusters in Connecticut. Lucky for us, we still have books.

It was a failed book, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, published in 1817, that inspired a novella unheralded in 1855, Benito Cereno, that inspired a new work, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World, which presents slavery as the thread-wire binding histories of liberty and subjugation; linking the known world to the unheeded past.

Amaso Delano, author of that first book, began his career as a Revolutionary soldier, a republican seafaring optimist keen to study the world but drawn by opportunity to the business of slaughtering seals. He died penniless and broken, with 700 unsold copies of his memoir. Herman Melville, author of the second, took Delano’s account of his unwitting and ultimately barbaric encounter with a shipboard slave revolt in 1805 as the subject for a chilling tale of the deceptions of freedom and slavery. He died largely ignored, his greatest works a commercial failure. Now comes Greg Grandin, centering his book on the rebel Africans’ experience, acknowledging in the process Delano’s tragedy, and complementing Melville’s genius with a history of adamantine brilliance.

Materially, the Empire of Necessity here is colonial South America in the late 1700s, early 1800s. Spain’s embrace of “free trade” led to “a slavers’ fever” that would hit the US South after 1812:

Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments…, credit…, property, commodities, and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value. Collateral for loans and items for speculation, slaves were also objects of nostalgia, mementos of a fixed but fading aristocratic world even as they served as the coin of a new commercialized one. Slaves literally made money: working in Lima’s mint, they trampled quicksilver into ore with their bare feet, pressing toxic mercury into their bloodstream in order to amalgamate the silver used for coins. And they were money, at least in a way.

Grandin follows Babo, Mori and the other rebels from Africa to the Pacific and their seizure of The Tryal in such a way that nothing is left untouched by their presence – neither landscape nor law nor something as insignificant as a kid glove. The wealth that made the glove a trifling purchase, that filled ships’ cargos with Africans or cowhides, that remade Buenos Aires via a holocaust of animals and a workforce of free and enslaved butchers, also made liberty from colonial power possible, and more slave rebellion inevitable. It shaped the choices even of those who wanted no part in slaving, lashing their labor to economies of speculation, debt finance, manic extraction – thus turning the screw for more suffering and rebellion.

The Tryal rebels’ story ends with Mori’s head on a pike, another victim of the central crime, prefiguring Northrup and so many others on up to the hooded figure at Abu Ghraib, indicting ordinary custom that accommodates, or requires, such cruelty, and begging for an alternative.

* Our friend (and longtime CounterPunch) Greg Grandin was just awarded the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his vitally important book: The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World. Congratulations, Greg!)

JoAnn Wypijewski is co-editor of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American ViolenceShe can be reached at


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.