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....
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