Benito Cereno

“Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” (Abraham Lincoln)

“During slavery, who was able to read or write or keep anything? The ability to have someone to tell your story is so important. It says: I was here. I may be sold tomorrow but I was here.” (Maya Angelou)

“While seeking revenge, dig two graves – one for yourself.” (Douglas Horton)

For 19th century American novelist Herman Melville, the subject of slavery served as proxy for the human condition in general. Nearly all of his epic sea stories were devoted to issues of freedom and slavery. As an abolitionist, concerning slavery he wrote: “Sin it is, no less, it puts out the sun at noon.” Yet, he also tended to treat bondage as a metaphysical problem and freedom as an idea best suited to some inner realm of personal sovereignty. In his view, all human beings oscillate somewhere between two extreme poles of liberty and slavery. His stories contain characters who were slaves, yet made to seem free; as well as men who were free, yet enslaved to obsession.

In his best known whaling adventure, Moby Dick, published in 1851, we have the characters of monomaniacal, revenge driven, peg-legged, maimed and raging Captain Ahab, whose ego accepts no limits in the face of the howling infinite of nature’s fury; as well as young adventurer shipmate and narrator Ishmael; both entangled within unresolved traumatic obsessions. “Who ain’t a slave”, Ishmael asks – “Tell me that.” (Greg Grandin, Empire of Necessity, 2014).

Many of Melville’s tales were inspired by actual people and events. Even Moby Dick, the monstrous white cetacean, and object of Ahab’s insane pursuit, had an actual prototype in a renowned sea monster; a gigantic albino sperm whale often spotted near the Chilean island of Moche. The ultimate fate of Ahab’s ship is foreshadowed in the naming of the whale-ship Pequod, after the Pequot, a doomed and nearly extinct indigenous New England tribe. Caught within the complex twists of victim/perpetrator dynamics, Ahab dies by his own harpoon, a nearly inevitable result of his relentless, fevered pursuit of a darkly charismatic, projected adversary. And so, as this nautical tale concludes, Moby Dick, the deathly-pale leviathan totally decimates Ahab’s predatory vessel. Predator and prey then descend together into a whirlpool of cold oblivion, deep into the Pacific. This apocalyptic conclusion of Melville’s seafaring novel offers a disturbing meditation upon oceanic truth in relation to the frail, transitory delusions of self-absorbed, human centered consciousness; which renders us a danger to ourselves as well as many other life forms.

While Moby Dick remains Melville’s best known work, and is considered by many to be the ultimate American novel; a number of Melvellian scholars consider the nearly forgotten novella, Benito Cereno, to be his true masterpiece. This literary gem, first published in a partisan abolitionist magazine in 1855, deals directly with the slave trade. It is also derived from actual events that transpired when the Yankee merchant sea captain of the Perseverance encountered a mysterious Spanish slave ship drifting near a desert island off of the coast of Southern Chile.

Amasa Delano a distant relative of later President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and one of the earliest New Englanders to sail the South Pacific; published his memoirs in 1817 which contained an account of events that unfolded during a failed fur-seal hunting expedition. As the luckless mariner dropped anchor in a shallow harbor near the uninhabited island of Santa Maria, he encountered a battered schooner that appeared to be in distress. Amasa ordered his whale boat to be lowered and while carrying relief supplies, food and water, cautiously approached the enigmatic Tryal. Once aboard, Delano found no officers, about 70 starving and dehydrated African men, women and children, unsupervised slaves milling about, and a strangely aloof Spanish Captain, Benito Cereno. While the American quickly distributed food and water and sent word for further relief provisions to be delivered, a seemingly vacant Cereno spun a tale of gales, fevers, and other calamities, to explain his loss of passengers, crew and the poor condition of his vessel.

Pale, frail, incapacitated and given to fainting, Cereno was constantly attended by Babo, an elderly African man-servant who tended his every need with apparent devotion; along with his son Mori, referred to as “Captain of the Slaves”. At first Delano was envious and fantasized as to how much easier his life could be with access to such affection and meticulously caring attention. And yet, there were subtle indications that something wasn’t right and all was not as it seemed. During his nine hours aboard the Tryal, Delano continued to be puzzled by Cereno’s behavior and an unusually intimate bond between Babo and his master. Only after Cereno made a desperate leap over the bulwarks into Delano’s departing whale boat in an attempt to escape; only to be followed by his knife-wielding servant, did the American become aware of the hostage dynamic, whereby Babo was master and Cereno his slave. Amasa Delano had in fact been witness and participant in an elaborate masquerade, during which the Africans pretended to be slaves after taking command of the ship. Soon thereafter, the passengers and officers were slaughtered and Cereno was held hostage to Babo’s demand that the Spanish captain sail his Tryal back to Senegal in West Africa. As the ruse unraveled, a struggle ensued and the crew of the Perseverance eventually overcame the rebellious slaves and delivered them to Lima, Peru, for trial.

Lima, extending nine miles inland, fifteen hundred miles above the sea, City of Kings and Spanish Royal Mint, was the grand throne of Spanish Catholicism in Latin America. In this twilight world of Spanish colonial justice, (overshadowed by the Spanish Inquisition), a somewhat predictable result was execution for most of the rebel slaves and forced labor in a penal colony for the others. At that time, judges often interrogated witnesses, with or without torture, during tribunals conducted under a decided bias in favor of guilt.

In Melville’s fictionalized version of this strange event, the Spanish slave ship Tryal is given the name San Dominik, identifying it with Haiti’s original French colonial name in recognition of the successful slave revolt in 1799 and declaration of independence in 1804. Babo and Mori are merged into one character and the author continues to develop an understanding of perpetrator/victim dynamics and a mirroring relationship between oppressor and oppressed, in this shadow play of white supremacy and black vengeance. Delano’s failure to detect Babo’s cunning deception was rooted in his culturally conditioned racial prejudices, where whites quite naturally ruled over blacks. Lost within the fog of his own merchant-class consciousness, he misreads the obviously traumatized Cereno’s erratic and elusive demeanor as “aristocratic disdain”. As the clueless Yankee, who wears many faces in American literature, this alabaster-skinned New Englander simply cannot fathom that he is being manipulated by an African slave of brilliance and wit.

In the view of Humanities Professor Andrew Delbanco: “Today one realizes in Benito Cereno, a prophetic vision of American innocence, so opaque in the face of evil that it seems equally insensible to slavery and the rebellion against slavery – the kind of moral opacity that seems still to afflict America as it lumbers through the world, creating enemies whose enmity it does not begin to understand”. Amen to that. (Andrew Delbanco, Melville and His World and His Work, 2005)

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