Benito Cereno (American History Through Literature)
Herman Melville's long story "Benito Cereno," which first appeared serially in the numbers of Putnam's Monthly Magazine for October, November, and December 1855 and which reappeared in Melville's The Piazza Tales (1856), has come to be regarded not only as one of the author's most important works but as one of the most important American fictional works of the nineteenth century. The plot of the story is based on a real-life incident described in the published recollections of an American ship captain: Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). In 1805 Delano encountered a Spanish slave ship, the Tryal, at the island of St. Maria, off the coast of Chile. Observing that the vessel was in a state of disrepair and that blacks onboard far outnumbered whites, Delano boarded the Tryal and conferred with its captain, Benito Cereno, who informed him that fierce storms were responsible for both the sad condition of the vessel and the small number of Spanish crewmen. After spending several hours with Cereno, who was closely accompanied at all times by a black servant, Delano left the ship to return to his own vessel, the Perseverance.
But as Delano was entering his longboat, the Spanish captain suddenly jumped into it, whereupon the blacks on the Tryal revealed themselves to have been secretly in control of the vessel while Delano was aboard. After learning from Cereno that the blacks had revolted against their Spanish masters and killed their owner and many of the Spanish crewmen, Delano offered his own crewmen a reward for taking the Tryal, which was subsequently captured. Some of the slaves were killed in the assault, and Delano had to protect those left alive from the vengeance of the Spaniards, including Cereno, who later accused Delano of being a "pirate" (Delano, p. 329) for attempting to lay claim to the vessel and its human cargo. Delano's narrative ends with transcripts of various "official documents" connected with the later trial of the surviving slaves, including the depositions of both Cereno and Delano and an account of the sentences meted out to the blacks by the Spanish authorities. The ringleaders of the revolt were to be hanged, after having their bodies dragged to the gibbet at the tails of mules. Their heads were then to be placed on poles and their bodies burned to ashes.
Melville's retelling of this grisly story consists of three parts: an extended account of Delano's initial visit to the Spanish ship, narrated in third person from Delano's unenlightened perspective; a greatly altered version of the deposition given by Benito Cereno at the trial; and an entirely fictional final conversation between Delano and Cereno, in which Delano admits that his failure to grasp the truth of his situation saved his life. In creating his story, Melville also changed the name of Cereno's and Delano's ships to the San Dominick and Bachelor's Delight, respectively; back-dated the episode to 1799; combined Mure, Cereno's servant, and Babo, the leader of the revolt, into a single character named Babo; greatly embellished the character of Delano (instilling in him, for example, the false fear that Cereno rather than Babo is plotting against him); invented several key incidents; eliminated the final wrangling between Cereno and Delano over the rights to the Spanish ship; and added a final, fictitious account of Cereno's death, portrayed as caused directly by the stresses of his experience. Attempting to encourage Cereno at the end of the story, Delano assures the Spanish captain that he is "saved" and asks what has cast such a "shadow" upon him? "The negro," replies Cereno, terminating the conversation ("Benito Cereno," p. 116).
Noting Melville's apparent linking of Babo with Iago, the villain of Shakespeare's Othello (who, like Babo, refuses to speak a word after he is convicted) and observing Melville's initial characterization of Delano as failing to appreciate the human capacity for "malign evil" (p. 47), the earliest interpreters of "Benito Cereno" saw the story as focusing primarily on that capacity. They viewed Babo and his black compatriots as Melville's symbols of human violence and cruelty, Cereno as a symbol of moral awareness, and Delano as a symbol of moral ignorance. This reading prompted criticism of the story in some quarters, as Melville was accused of manifesting an inattention to the moral complexities of his own literary materials when he ignored the fact that the "evil" Babo was the leader of slaves understandably seeking to obtain their freedom. Melville also was accused of showing a disturbing disregard for the topicality of his materials when, in a tale about slavery, he failed to treat the issue of most importance to Americans in 1855.
Later critics have clearly demonstrated, however, that in writing "Benito Cereno," Melville was neither ignoring moral complications nor evading contemporary issues. Though his tale underscores human depravity, it cites slavery as a key illustration, focusing as well on mid-century theories of America's "Manifest Destiny." Moreover, its emphasis on the human capacity for evil is itself a direct response to contemporary developments in American intellectual history.
"BENITO CERENO" AND SLAVERY
Melville's early mention of the San Dominick's stern piece, "intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon" (p. 49), and later notation that the ship's original figurehead was an image of Christopher Columbus (details missing from his source) transform Cereno's vessel into a symbol of the Spanish Empire in the New World. They also remind readers that slavery was introduced into the Western Hemisphere by Columbus, acting for Spain. Melville's many references to Catholicism (including his early comparison of the figures seen moving on the San Dominick to the "Black Friars" [p. 48] of the Dominican order) similarly underscore the role of both the Catholic Church and the Dominicans in sponsoring slavery in the New World. Finally, Melville's nearby comparison of Benito Cereno to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invokes the Spanish monarch who, at the behest of the church, first approved the importation of African slaves into the Western Hemisphere.
Yet Melville does more in "Benito Cereno" than link the San Dominick and its captain to Spain's imperialism and sponsorship of slavery. He also reminds his readers that Spain's once mighty empire had been reduced to pitiful fragments by 1855. Near the outset of his story Melville calls attention to the San Dominick's tattered tops and moldering forecastle, assigning the vessel to the class of "superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king's navy, which . . . under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state" (p. 48). Moreover, by comparing the "manner" of the "tottering" Benito Cereno to that of Charles V, "just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne" (p. 53)nd thus reminding one that Charles eventually retired from his monarchical duties "broken in health and spirits" (Stirling, p. 80; noted in Franklin, "Apparent Symbol")elville makes Cereno a further symbol of a declining Spanish Empire. By way of his plot, Melville also reminds one that Spain's empire had declined largely because of a series of violent slave and anticolonial revolutions. Melville changed the name of Cereno's vessel to the San Dominick to invoke not merely the Dominican sponsors of slavery but also the violent slave revolt that occurred on the island of Santo Domingo in the late eighteenth century. He also backdated Delano's adventure to the 1790s, the years in which this revolt occurred, to make the Santo Domingo allusion more plain.
Having recalled the history of slave revolt in the Spanish territories, Melville goes on to underscore the potential for further rebellion, particularly in the United States. Melville's recognition that the problem of slavery was not limited to the Spanish territories is clear from the American Delano's offer to buy Babo from Cerenond from the fact that, when Babo jumps into Delano's boat at the end of the story, it is Delano who, in attempting to thwart Babo's purposes, "grind[s] the prostrate negro" (p. 99). Equally telling is Delano's confidence in the cheerful servility of slaves, a linchpin of the South's rationale for maintaining slavery. Melville's story clearly conveys his opinion that, like the Spanish variety, American slavery was an evil that liberty-loving human beings could be expected to resist.
To be sure, the blacks on the San Dominick commit violent acts. But Melville attributes these to the repressive bonds and brutalizing effects of slavery. Noting Melville's linking of Babo with Iago, one early critic insisted that the blacks on the San Dominick manifest a "motiveless malignity." Yet the deposition with which "Benito Cereno" ends states plainly that they decided to kill their owner Alexandro Aranda (who was onboard the vessel) and the other Spaniards so as to improve their chances of obtaining "liberty" in Africa (p. 106). Moreover, by reversing the normal dynamics of slavery, by making Babo in effect the merciless black "master" of the white Cereno, Melville highlights the potential for violence in the master-slave relationship, regardless of who is master and who slave. The tableau on the stern piece of the San Dominick underscores this point by portraying a "dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the neck of a prostrate figure, likewise masked" (p. 49). To be sure, Melville portrays Babo as amply "malign" and his fellow blacks as quite vindictive. Yet these depictions were meant to underscore for all Americans, including both southern slaveholders and northern liberals, the fact that slavery produced violence, not good-humored loyalty. In "Benito Cereno," Melville challenges both the happy image of slavery promoted by certain of its apologists and the docile image of slaves promoted by certain of its opponents. Through his account of Babo's masquerade, he characterizes the "contentment" of slaves as a charade, a veneer overlaying violence.
Some of Melville's critics have suggested that his emphasis on Aranda's relaxed policy toward his slaves (he allowed them to sleep on deck without fetters, believing they were "tractable" [p. 104]) and their brutal reaction to that policy might have encouraged southern slaveholders to view blacks as innately violent and to intensify their oppression of them. Yet Melville would hardly have endorsed such a response to his story, since he clearly sought in "Benito Cereno" not to portray blacks as violent by nature but to depict the violence induced by slavery in the enslavers and enslaved of any race. In his allegorical work Mardi (1849), Melville characterized slavery as "a blot, foul as the crater-pool of hell" and predicted that, because of slavery, the southern savannas might one day "prove battle-fields" (pp. 533, 534). His views had obviously not changed when he wrote "Benito Cereno" in the summer of 1854. The blacks on the San Dominick are not portrayed as either sympathetic victims or noble freedom fighters. They are portrayed as the merciless perpetrators of heinous acts. Yet, speaking for Melville, Delano accurately observes at one point that slavery "breeds ugly passions in man" (p. 88). If Babo and his fellows are violent, slavery is to blame. If southern slaveholders were to intensify slavery, even more violence would result.
In the final conversation of "Benito Cereno," Cereno, having become all too aware of the black capacity for violence, attributes his gloom to "the negro." Melville, however, encourages one to look beyond the black violence on both Santo Domingo and the San Dominick to its source: the unnatural constraints of slavery. At the end of "Benito Cereno," Babo may be dead and his rebellion crushed, but his severed head continues to look sternly toward the graves of Aranda and Cereno. Melville's point is inescapable. So long as slavery exists, the potential for violence remains.
"BENITO CERENO" AND MANIFEST DESTINY
Besides grappling with the slavery question, Melville's tale also carefully treats the issue of Manifest Destinyarticularly mid-nineteenth-century arguments for American intervention in Latin America, which contrasted the energy, libertarianism, and efficiency of Americans with the supposed weakness, despotism, and disorderliness of the Spanish. "Cuba," an 1853 Putnam's article, insisted that Americans were "an enlightened, progressive race, the Spaniards the extreme reverse"; described America as a "powerful and prosperous country" and Spain as a "weak nation, tottering toward ruin"; characterized Cuba, the sole Spanish dependency left in the New World, as suffering under a "despotic and even brutal administration"; and insisted that annexation of Cuba would allow liberty-loving Americans to "assert political, religious, and commercial freedom" on the island (pp. 5, 10, 136).
Melville's story provides a brilliant critique of such ideas. Amasa Delano, Melville's representative American, complains about the "noisy confusion" (p. 54) aboard the San Dominick, attributing this confusion to Cereno's impotence as a commander. Soon after, he also develops a plan to take control of the vessel, thus mirroring the thinking of expansionist Americans eager to replace a weakened Spain in the Caribbean. Yet Melville questions the motives of his "liberty-loving" contemporaries by characterizing American expansionism as mercenary. The author notes that Delano's sailors are persuaded to take the San Dominick by the promise of material reward. He also renamed Delano's ship the Bachelor's Delight after the ship of a famous English buccaneer and christened Delano's boat Rover so as to characterize Manifest Destiny as a kind of piracy. Meanwhile Delano's offer to buy Babo midway through the story underscores the nonlibertarian aspect of American expansionism, which was promoted with special energy by southerners eager to expand American slavery to the south.
By thus negatively characterizing Manifest Destiny, Melville sought, more broadly, to invalidate the distinction, crucial to American expansionists, between American expansionism and the colonialism of Spain. The author of "Annexation," another Putnam's article, distinguished American expansionism from "conquest," contrasting the "open, generous, equitable international policy" of the United States (p. 184) with the "sinister and iniquitous proceedings" of European states (p. 191). Delano can cheerfully plot to take over the San Dominick because he similarly believes there is a significant "difference" between "the idea of Don Benito's darkly pre-ordaining Captain Delano's fate, and Captain Delano's lightly arranging Don Benito's" (p. 70). Yet Melville's emphasis on Delano's blithe imperialism suggests that, in planning to invade Cuba and take control of the rest of Latin America, America was simply taking over where Spain had left off.
Melville's Catholic imagery may have been another way of emphasizing this point. In the mid-1850s Americans were particularly fearful of Catholicism, as the victories of the Know Nothing Party in 1854 and 1855 demonstrated. Moreover, when envisioning Catholicism, Americans tended to focus on the Spanish Inquisition, which typified for many the bigotry and authoritarianism of "popery." Yet in one of the most powerful scenes in "Benito Cereno," a scene replete with inquisitorial images in which Babo shaves Cereno, Delano actually functions as the inquisitor, pumping Cereno for information. He has in fact been "inquiring" all day long, attempting to distinguish good from evil on the San Dominick. Yet his biases have caused him to be as unreliable a judge of these matters as the Spanish inquisitors were thought to be. In particular, his brand of paternalistic white racism has wrongly persuaded him that Babo's blacks are too docile to pose a threat, while national prejudice has made him wrongly suspect the "dark Spaniard" Cereno. A blind and biased inquisitor, Delano is Melville's ingenious way of suggesting that at a time when Americans were especially critical of Spanish Catholicism, they themselves were becoming involved not merely in an imperialist enterprise but in a dogmatic crusade.
In "Benito Cereno" Melville also suggests that both would be unsuccessful. When the confused Delano is thrown a mysterious knot by a Spanish sailor said to resemble "an Egyptian priest, making Gordian knots for the temple of Ammon" (p. 76), he is implicitly linked with Alexander the Great, who visited the temple of Ammon at the beginning of his military career and, finding there the Gordian knot, believed to be unravelable only by the one who would conquer Asia, simply cut the knot and marched off to his first series of conquests. Unable to unravel his own knot, Delano simply hands it to an elderly Negro, who drops it overboard. Clearly suggesting that Delano is no Alexander, the episode also suggests that Americans were far less likely than Alexander to successfully establish an empire. Delano believes that, as an energetic American, he can succeed where the "weak" Cereno has failed. But Melville calls Delano's confidence into question by comparing Cereno to "an invalid courtier tottering about London streets in the time of the plague" (p. 58), thus invoking an example of Anglo-Saxon weakness. Delano eventually realizes that Cereno's weakness has resulted mainly from his horrifying experiences and the stresses he has undergone for many weeks. And once America embarked on its own imperialist venture, it might well find itself similarly exhausted.
Delano also believes that, as a good-hearted American, he is under the protection of "some one above" (p. 77). So did many Americans feel that a providentially blessed America would succeed where Spanish Catholics had failed. Yet in "Benito Cereno," Melville calls such confidence into question by portraying as unfounded the similar confidence of Spain. The drowned Juan Robles, who dies "making acts of contrition" (p. 107), and the dead Don Joaquin (accidentally killed by Delano's Americans), who intended to present a jewel to "our Lady of Mercy in Lima" to "attest his gratitude . . . for the safe conclusion of his . . . voyage from Spain" (p. 113), seem to have been forsaken by their popish divinities. And Melville seems to have felt that, however blessed Americans might feel in 1855, their confidence in a divine sanction for American expansionism might well prove one day to have been misplaced.
Near the end of "Benito Cereno," Melville notes that Babo chalked the saying "Follow your leader" below the bones of the dead Aranda, lashed to the prow of the San Dominick, as a warning to the surviving Spanish sailors (p. 99). "Follow your leader," whisper these bones to the American sailors who invade the San Dominick. "Follow your leader!" shouts Delano's mate in reply (p. 102). By way of such details, Melville not only underscores the imperialist resemblance between America and Spain but also suggests that the destiny that seemed most "manifest" for America was eventually to join with Spain in the non-select company of failed colonial powers.
"BENITO CERENO" AND HUMAN DEPRAVITY
If the earliest critics of Melville's story were wrong to imply that, in writing it, he showed little interest in such contemporary issues as slavery and Manifest Destiny, they were right to suggest that he had a broader concern with human depravity. Moreover, this concern too stemmed from his awareness of contemporary American thinking.
Delano's oft-expressed (and obviously misguided) confidence in the "docility" (pp. 63, 84, 92), "cheerfulness" (p. 83), and "affection" (pp. 51, 52) of blacks is likely meant to represent, for instance, the optimistic view of certain northern abolitionists, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), who argued in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) that freeing slaves could not possibly induce violence since blacks were by nature so peaceful. Melville found many proofs to the contrary in Delano's Narrative. Yet in writing "Benito Cereno" he actually heightened the savagery of Babo's blacks, adding to the story, for example, the grim figurehead of Aranda's bones. By altering the date of Delano's adventure and changing the name of Cereno's vessel to the San Dominick, he also invoked a specific historical example of black violence. Finally, he also attributes to Delano's character a number of observations about black docility that are directly challenged by specific disclosures in Cereno's deposition. Whereas Delano praises the Negro's abilities as "body-servant," for example (p. 52), the deposition notes that José, Aranda's personal attendant, brutally stabbed his master after the latter had been dragged to the deck. And whereas Melville, adopting Delano's perspective, describes blacks as "natural valets and hair-dressers" (p. 83), his shaving scene utterly demolishes that notion.
Melville emphasized the violence of Aranda's blacks not merely, then, to demonstrate the evil effects of slavery but also to counter the notion that blacks were less violent than other human beings. He did not, however, wish to portray them as more violent. In an important conversation with Cereno, Delano points to the "hybrid" Francesco, Cereno's mulatto steward, as likely proof that the mixing of white and black "bloods" produces a product superior to the "full-blooded" black (p. 88). Delano's remark and Melville's nearby references to both a "Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue-head" (p. 87) and the "sculptured porters of black marble guarding the porches of Egyptian tombs" (p. 92) represent precise allusions to Josiah Nott (1804873) and George Gliddon's (1809857) Types of Mankind, a massive ethnological compendium published in 1854. Nott was a southerner determined to prove that the mental and moral deficiencies of the Negro could be demonstrated scientifically; Gliddon was a retired Egyptologist eager to buttress Nott's arguments by highlighting the antiquity of racial differences. Gliddon included reproductions of numerous Egyptian and Nubian paintings and sculptures; Nott insisted that "even a small trace of white blood in the negro improves him in . . . morality" (p. 68).
In "Benito Cereno" one later learns, however, that Francesco was no more moral than the "full-blooded" Babo. He was in fact a ringleader of revolt and a willing follower of Babo's brutal lead. Moreover, if Francesco's behavior calls Nott's theory of white moral superiority into question, so does the behavior of Cereno's Spaniards following the retaking of the San Dominick. Melville notes in the deposition that during the night following the recapture, these sailors brutally killed several Negroes who were "shackled to the ring-bolts on deck" (p. 114). The behavior of Delano's American sailors is no less brutal, for a number of Babo's blacks are "mangled" during the recapture, when the "sealing-spears and cutlasses" of the Americans cross the "hatchets and hand-spikes of their foes" (p. 102). Clearly if Babo's blacks are guilty of viciousness, both the Spanish and the American whites are all too willing to "follow their lead."
Melville further emphasizes the universal human capacity for violence by way of Delano's observation that the black women on the San Dominick manifest "pure tenderness and love" (p. 73)nd his accompanying recollection of the African explorer John Ledyard's high opinion of female morality. Ledyard's words were these: "Among all nations, . . . women . . . are the same kind, civil, obliging, humane, tender beings," "performing more good actions than [men]" ("American Travelers," p. 565). In the deposition, Cereno notes, however, that the black women on the San Dominick were "satisfied at the death of their master, Don Alexandro; that, had the negroes not restrained them, they would have tortured to death, instead of simply killing, the Spaniards slain by command of the negro Babo" (p. 112). Thus does Melville suggest that brutality is not foreign to any portion of humanity.
Melville made this point partly in response to both the pre-Darwinian evolutionists and their orthodox Christian opponents, who regularly emphasized the human moral capacity that was thought to clearly distinguish human beings from animals. The Putnam's reviewer of Types of Mankind insisted that "a man is a man all the world over, and nowhere a monkey or a hippopotamus." For this writer, man was "inconvertably separated from every other organism, by . . . his mind and his heart, which place[d] him . . . at the head of creation" ("Is Man One or Many?" pp. 5, 14). Yet by way of his emphasis on a universal human depravity, combined with his persistent use of animal imagery in describing human behavioris description, for example, of Negro women as "leopardesses," of Babo as "snakishly writhing up" from the bottom of Delano's boat, and of Delano's American marauders as "submerged sword-fish" menacing "shoals of black-fish" (pp. 73, 99, 102)elville implies that the gulf between men and beasts is far from vast.
By underscoring a general human depravity, he also responded to another issue in contemporary American thought. Fearing that Cereno and Babo might be conspiring against him, Delano comforts himself by asking, "Who ever heard of a white . . . so far a renegade as to apostatize from his very species almost, by leaguing in against it with negroes?" (p. 75). Melville apparently realized that Types of Mankind was one of many contributions to a mid-century argument regarding the "unity" of the human race. The English ethnologist James Prichard had portrayed the race as a single "species" in several books in the 1840s; he was opposed by Robert Knox in The Races of Men, published in 1850, and by Nott and Gliddon, who meant by "types" the various species into which humankind was divided. Readers of "Benito Cereno" had also seen two Scripture-based defenses of human unityIs Man One or Many?" and "Are All Men Descended from Adam?"n the Putnam's numbers for July 1854 and January 1855. Both articles suggested that human beings were united by a spiritual capacity denied to lesser creatures.
In "Benito Cereno," Melville unenthusiastically aligned himself with the "unity" party by suggesting that humankind was undeniably "one"n its disturbing capacity for "malign evil." In the conversation with which Melville's story ends, Delano blithely encourages Cereno to "forget" his horrifying experiences (p. 116), while Cereno tersely insists that he cannot. Clearly Melville wanted his readers not to forget the multiple brutalities depicted in "Benito Cereno": of slavery, of slave revolt, of men and women, blacks and whites, Spaniards and Americans. He was obviously aware that an overly intimate acquaintance with human depravity could be destructive of life and hopend that an unawareness of this trait could help one survive. Cereno dies of his experience while Delano survives his, partly because of his ability to ignore its gloomy implications. But an author who throughout his career endorsed the facing of grim realities clearly preferred the more informed perspective of Cereno.
See also Battle-Pieces; The Confidence-Man; Manifest Destiny; Moby-Dick; Nautical Literature; Slave Rebellions; Slavery; Typee
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Allan Moore Emery