In 1855, Herman Melville published “Benito Cereno,” a novella about a New England ship captain who suppresses a slave rebellion onboard another ship discovered off the coast of Lima, Peru. The story takes place in Melville’s favorite setting, a ship in open water, and deals with one of his main preoccupations: slavery. As it happens, it is also true.
Thanks to Greg Grandin’s masterful Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, we now know that history.
The remarkable event at the core of the book is a nine-hour charade pulled off by insurgent slaves, led by two West Africans named Babo and Mori. Having been shipped across the Atlantic, led on a forced march over the Andes, and loaded onto another ship, the Tryal, they sail up the South American coast to the Lima slave market.