Abolishing the Norm - Episode 1: Slavery's Tryal

Francois August-Biard,  Slaves on the West Coast of Africa , c.1833

Francois August-Biard, Slaves on the West Coast of Africa, c.1833

Over 300 years, the transatlantic slave trade caused the abuse, suffering and enslavement of an estimated 10-12 million people. This episode takes a look at what some of that experience would have meant for these groups and individuals forcibly removed from their homelands. Specifically, we look at the slave uprising on the Spanish ship Tryal, in 1805, and ask some questions that set us on the path of this series about the abolition of one of the oldest human institutions. What were the social, political and economic conditions that led to the uprising on the Tryal? How did it go down and what were the repercussions? Furthermore, how did American author Herman Melville (of Moby Dick fame) write about the Tryal uprising, some 50 years after it had occurred, and during a period where his country was at that moment tearing itself apart over the very question of slavery? All this and more, in Slavery's Tryal.

Edouard Antoine Renard,  Rebellion of a Slave on a Slave Ship , 1833

Edouard Antoine Renard, Rebellion of a Slave on a Slave Ship, 1833

Triangular Trade

Map showing the transatlantic trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas.   Source

Map showing the transatlantic trade between Europe, Africa and the Americas. Source

Slave Experience

So recent, historically speaking, is the time when these events took place, that we have many written sources from people involved.

In 1789, a slave called Olaudah Equiano, who had been taken at around the age of 10, somewhere around Nigeria, and eventually bought his own freedom, wrote: The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

Here is how Equiano described being put onto the ship off the coast of Africa, after having been abducted (alongside his sister from whom he was later, and forever, seperated) and forced there in chains:

The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and waiting for its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board. I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits, and that they were going to kill me.

I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything. I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me...
— Olaudah Equiano
Johann Moritz Rugendas,  Negres a fond de calle,  Negros in the cellar of a slave ship, c1830.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, Negres a fond de calle, Negros in the cellar of a slave ship, c1830.

Ali Eisam, in 1817, wrote about being forced on the ship to be taken across to the Americas - the Middle-Passage, as it was known - in 1818. This was 11 years after the trade had been officially abolished by Britain. Currently engaged in the Napoleonic wars, Britain had made it a policy to capture slave ships. This happened to the ship that Ali was on, and he was taken by the British Navy to Sierra Leone, and there set free.

The people of the great vessel were wicked: when we had been shipped, they took away all the small pieces of cloth which were on our bodies, and threw them into the water, then they took chains and fettered two together. We in the vessel, young and old, were seven hundred, whom the White men had bought. We were all fettered round our feet, and all the oldest died of thirst, for there was no water. Every morning they had to take many, and throw them into the water.
— Ali Eisam

Spanish American Slavery of Natives and Africans

The largest amount of Africans taken into slavery ended up in Spanish American colonies; an imperial colonial structure that depended on the free labour that the enslaved provided. Here they joined the millions of natives who were already being exploited and put into forced servitude, very often leading directly to their deaths.

In 1780, Tupac Amaru II (after whom Tupac Amaru Shakur was named) led an uprising against Spanish colonisation and exploitation. Regarding his name, he was actually born José Gabriel Condorcanqui, but this is a seriously Spanish sounding name. Tupac Amaru I had been the last indigenous monarch of the Neo-Incan state, and had been executed by the Spanish in 1572. It's a good name change if you are becoming a leader of indigenous revolt. We are probably going to do an episode on him one day so won't go into it, but suffice to say Native Americans suffered tremendously under the labour needs of European commercial and imperial globalism.

Besides the devastation of small-pox and other diseases, and of course conquest and colonisation in general, many natives suffered from working in the silver mines - forced into it through Spain's exploitation of the Incan system of indentured labour, mita, and which now upheld the costs of Spain's imperial output.

In their article (of which here is an abstract) titled Mercury Production and Use in Colonial Andean Silver Production: Emissions and Health Implication (2011), Nicholas A. Robins and Nicole A. Hagan write:

The mita system played a central role in the destruction of indigenous communities - not only through death and morbidity as a result of working in the mines and mills but also through the migration of people away from their home towns to evade the levy, which many considered a death sentence

Although the exact nature of mercury's ill effects remains unknown in the 1600s, there was no question that they existed. A priest in Potosi, which Robins and Hagan suggest to have been the largest city in the world in the 1650s (population 160,000), wrote in 1629 that:

(the Spaniards) well know and have seen...how terrible are the effects of mercury, as only in smelting...and treading...many are poisoned y mercury and we see those effect among those to whom we give last rights.
— Pedro de Oñate

Melville's Benito Cereño

Herman Melville, being confused about which direction the camera is

Herman Melville, being confused about which direction the camera is

Benito Cereño was first published in 1855 in Putnam's Monthly. A year later, a revised edition appeared in his collection of short stories, Piazza Tales. Contemporary reviews were not of great acclaim, but neither disparaging or dismissive.

In 1856 the United States, chronologically speaking, was on the brink of Civil War; a violent collision that resulted directly from a schism that wrought peoples' consciences and drew on their fears around economic stability and physical security. It was a troubling time, and Melville's telling of the Tryal uprising, if analysed deeply, shows an understanding of the elements at the root of the rift.

In that year one outlet, The Knickerbocker, said of Benito Cereño that it was:

"...most painfully interesting, and in reading it we become nervously anxious for the solution of the mystery it involves."

There are some differences between the fictional account of Melville and the non-fictional account of Delano's memoirs, that are worth pointing out. In Benito Cereño, the ship on which the mutiny is taking place is not called the Tryal, but the San Dominck - an explicit reference to Haiti and the revolution that had so drastically changed the world. Delano's ship is not the Perseverance, but Bachelor's Delight. It is also set, not in 1805, as in reality, but in 1799. It has been suggested that this places it more within the timeframe of the Haitian Revolution, showing that Melville believed this story to truly represent the great conflict of the age, in which Haiti played such a massive role.

Reading List

Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity, London, Oneworld Publications, 2014

Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands, Boston, E.G House, 1817

Herman Melville, Benito Cereño, Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn, 2006

Jeanine Marie DeLombard and Christopher Freeburg, Melville and the Idea of Blackness: Race and Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century America, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2012

Manisha Sinha, The Slave's Cause, Yale, Yale University Press, 2017