Melville repeatedly uses irony to undercut the easy assumptions of Captain Delano. Observing Babo’s constant attendance on Cereno, whom the black will not leave even for a moment, Delano comments, “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him.” Such envy is clearly out of place, but there is ironic truth in Delano’s refusing to call Babo a slave, for Babo in fact is the master. Delano likens the ship to a monastery and the blacks to monks, analogies hardly appropriate to the situation. The American regards the black women as the pattern of docility, “pure tenderness and love”; later the reader learns that during the mutiny they were more vicious and bloodthirsty than the men.
Melville also employs irony to indicate that blackness is not a function of skin color. Babo demonstrates that blacks and whites are identical within when he mockingly shows the skeleton of Don Alexandro Aranda. To each of the Spaniards he puts the same question: Does not the whiteness of the bones prove that they belonged to a white man? The answer is no. Beneath the surface all people are alike, which means that all people are capable of the horrors committed aboard the San Dominick.
Ironic repetitions emphasize this idea. Babo’s motto, “Follow your leader,” is a warning to the Spaniards that if they refuse to comply with his orders they will share the fate of Don Alexandro. When the Americans recapture the San...
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