Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

What could have been a trite moral allegory pitting good white sea captains against wicked African mutineers founders on the issue of slavery’s evil. Who, black or white, would not mutiny and kill his or her captors if kidnapped? Delano, despite his brag of worldliness in his opening exchange with Perkins, displays an astonishing naïveté that perhaps signifies the moral debilitation, due to slavery, of the white race that Babu hints at in his last words: “The future is ours.” Delano says at one point: “My conscience is clean. God is good. What am I doing on board this nigger-pirate ship?” What can the future hold for a civilization that shares his sentiments? Don Benito tells of how in a grotesque dream “little black men came on us with beetle backs.” In a vivid scene, Babu shaves the trembling Don Benito, teasing his throat with a razor till he draws drops of blood. When Delano first spies the San Domingo he says, “The battered forecastle looks like a raped Versailles. On the stern-piece I see the fading arms of Spain. There’s a masked satyr, or something with its foot on a big white goddess.” As Babu presents his gift bottle of wine, he notes the ribbons that adorn it and points out to Delano that“The crown of Spain is tied to one. Forgive me for tying a rope [to lower the bottle into Delano’s whaleboat] around the King of Spain’s neck.” These images all suggest some allegorical purpose, some hint of racial convulsions soon to come in a postslavery, postcolonial world. As Delano once asserts, “These old empires go. They are much too familiar with their blacks.”

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The naïve racism Delano often reveals is evidence of his blindness to the situation into which he has blundered. He and Perkins are both annoyed by the disregard for white authority they witness on the San Domingo, and Perkins has no regard even for Spaniards (or French or Italians), sneering at the sight of “Brown men in charge of black men, it doesn’t add up to much,” and judging that “Spaniards and Negroes have no business on a ship.” Delano observes that the San Domingo “needs severe superior officers” (Yankees), but at one point Delano observes Babu in feigned attendance upon his hostage Don Benito and remarks admiringly, “There’s a true servant. They do things better in the South and in South America.” He even compares this putative southern gallantry to the cold individualism (“each a republic to himself”) of Sam Adams’s Massachusetts.

Yet, Delano’s feelings about the slaves generally emerge in clichés, such as, “These people are too spontaneous—all noise and show, no character!” Babu, by far the most intelligent, energetic, and capable of the characters, enjoys catering to white stereotypes and confesses to Delano with heavy irony: “We are a childish people. Our pleasures are childish. No one helped us, we know nothing about your important amusements, such as killing seals and pirates.” Delano is completely deceived by Babu’s “tact,” confiding to Perkins that there is an easiness to having slaves in one’s presence, with their “sense of humor” and “easy cheerfulness” to counter their “boorish giggling and teeth-showing.” The most ironic remark in the play is Delano’s answer to Babu’s statement about all men being created equal in North America: “We prefer merit to birth, boy.”

Delano is not a bad man, but he is guilty of accepting unquestioningly the institution of slavery, of appraising character in stereotypes, and of being anything but the worldly judge of human nature that he proclaims himself to be. Don Benito emerges as a wilted representative of an old world that will not stand up to the changes that are coming. Only Babu displays the courage, will, and intelligence to take up arms against a brutal world (he was also a slave in Africa), and Lowell’s play can be read as the tragedy of Babu.

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