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THE TRUTH BEHIND THE MASK

THE ISSUE OF SLAVERY IN

MELVILLE’S BENITO CERENO


Herman Melville was an American novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet
who is often classified as part of dark romanticism. He is best known for his novel Moby-
Dick and novella Billy Budd, the latter was published posthumously. After a fast-
blooming literary success in the late 1840s, his popularity declined in the mid-1850s and
never recovered during his lifetime. When he died in 1891, he was almost completely
forgotten. It was not until the "Melville Revival" in the early 20th century that his work
won recognition, most notably Moby-Dick which was hailed as one of the chief literary
masterpieces of both American and world literature. He was the first writer to have his
works collected and published by the Library of America.

The novella or the short story called Benito Cereno uses the theme of slavery,
causing very much controversy when it appeared. The novella centers on a slave
rebellion on board a Spanish merchant ship in 1799 and because of its ambiguity has
been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist
text. Earlier critics, however, had seen Benito Cereno as a tale that primarily explores
human depravity and does not reflect upon race at all. "Benito Cereno" is written in three
sections: the first section, by far the longest, is narrated from the limited third-person
point of view of Captain Delano; the second section is a deposition given in a vice-regal
court in Lima from the perspective of Benito Cereno; the third part, which is very short,
is written from an omniscient perspective. Melville published "Benito Cereno" in 1856;
the United States would be at Civil War within four years. The tale represents one of
Melville's several contributions to the impassioned debate surrounding slavery during his
era. It is not enough to say that Melville was simply opposed to slavery: more than that,
Melville understood the larger implications of slavery and the moral degradation that
slavery implied. Ironically enough, Melville put the thesis statement of his take on
slavery in the mouth of the most foolish character in "Benito Cereno", Captain Delano.
Delano says, "Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!" When reading "Benito
Cereno" it is easy to get swept up in the narrative and forget that one is reading about the
very real issue of slavery. When considering the context of the American Slave trade in
"Cereno" the first thing to keep in mind is that Cereno's ship, the San Dominick, is a slave
ship. Cereno describes his ship as having a few hundred slaves on board when it
embarked on its journey. One of the central ironies of "Benito Cereno" is that the slaves'
owner, Don Alessandro allows his slaves to remain above deck. The fact that the slaves
still revolt shows that this attempt to mitigate the slaves' inescapably miserable condition
does not work. One cannot be a "happy slave" in Melville's story. The grim brutalities of
the slave trade infect the community as a whole - in other words, a slave ship is still a
slave ship, regardless of how "pleasant" the atmosphere.

The story starts in the year 1799, when Captain Amasa Delano sees a very
peculiar ship in the harbour near Chile. The ship called San Dominick is very strange as
Captain Delano sees it: “the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-
hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a
whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among
the Pyrenees.” What is even more shocking than that is that the fine white vessel carries
Negro slaves from one colonial port to another. Delano boards the San Dominick to find
abundant disarray. The whites and blacks mill together aimlessly, and there is only the
slightest hint of order. Four "grizzled" elderly black men, perched at each of the four
corners of the deck, watch over the throng while picking oakum. Also, six black men sit
together on the stairwell leading to the poop and sharpen hatchets. Perturbed by the
appearance of things, Delano seeks out the captain of the San Dominick, the pale and
distracted Benito Cereno, who is attentively served by a loyal slave Babo. It is now that
Benito Cereno becomes the narrator of the story telling the misfortune that happened on
the vessel: “It is now a hundred and ninety days," began the Spaniard, in his husky
whisper, "that this ship, well officered and well manned, with several cabin passengers --
some fifty Spaniards in all -- sailed from Buenos Ayres bound to Lima, with a general
cargo, Paraguay tea and the like -- and," pointing forward, "that parcel of Negroes, now
not more than a hundred and fifty, as you see, but then numbering over three hundred
souls.” Nevertheless the most interesting thing in Cereno’s story is that even if the
Negroes seem to be well built, they do not attack the whites during the trip even if they
could have had the opportunity, moreover “But throughout these calamities," huskily
continued Don Benito, painfully turning in the half embrace of his servant, "I have to
thank those Negroes you see, who, though to your inexperienced eyes appearing unruly,
have, indeed, conducted themselves with less of restlessness than even their owner could
have thought possible under such circumstances." While Cereno tells Delano his
miserable history, Delano notices several mysterious events on board the San Dominick.
He witnesses the blacks on board the boat taking great liberties with the whites, and when
he brings this up to Cereno, his concerns are flippantly dismissed. Cereno's apparent lack
of concern for the behavior of his slaves is contradicted, however, by the appearance of a
mighty black man named Atufal, who, due to some offence against Cereno, is forced to
bear chains and appear before his captain every other hour until he begs pardon.”
Uncomfortable with Babo and Cereno's behavior, Delano takes a turn about the ship, only
to see still more unusual behavior. He witnesses another black-on-white assault, which
Cereno again ignores. Delano also finds himself the center of attention for several of the
old Spanish sailors on board, one of whom appears to make obscure signals to him from
the shadows of the anchor chain and another of whom hands him a very complicated
knot, saying, "Cut it." However, for every odd occurrence, Delano witnesses something
that cheers him up. He looks with approval upon the slave women tending their babies;
he admires the submissive behavior of Babo towards Cereno. (His admiration for the
slaves is always condescending and racist.)

The truth finally occurs to Delano, after his long afternoon on the San Dominick:
there has been a mutiny on board, and the blacks are in charge of the boat. The San
Dominick flees from the scene of this disclosure, and a whaleboat from the Bachelor's
Delight gives chase. After a struggle, the sailors of the Bachelor's Delight are able to
seize control of the San Dominick and to re-enslave the rebellious Africans, including
Babo who will be hanged and then beheaded to serve as an example for the others.

Captain Delano cannot be totally considered a racist as he does not hates blacks,
he is rather indifferent with their situation and he doesn’t think that they are really
intelligent people. In this aspect he associates the blacks with animals which are not
intelligent creatures nor can feel empathy. He even compares them several times with
animals or make allusions in this aspect: Babo is a "shepherd's dog," an African mother is
a "doe" tending her "fawn," Cereno is master of "his little black sheep," and so on.
Confused with Cereno’s behaviour and with his faith in the slaves,it briefly occurs to
Delano that Cereno might be in league with the blacks, but he dismisses the thought with
a shudder: "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?"

Babo, whom Delano takes to be the most faithful slave there could be(he seem to
treat well his master Cereno, he adresses to him with “ my poor, poor master”) - even
going so far in his "compliments" as to offer to buy Babo as his own slave - turns out to
be the scheming mastermind of the mutiny on the San Dominick. Babo, who plays the
faithful body servant to the Spanish captain (representing European aristocracy), is the
master-mind behind both the revolt and the subsequent subterfuge. The enslaved Africans
have ruthlessly killed their "owner", Alexandro Aranda, and other key officers on the
ship to force the captain and the remaining crew to take them back to Africa. To some
earlier critics, Babo represented evil, but more recent criticism has moved to reading
Babo as the heroic leader of a slave rebellion, whose tragic failure does not diminish the
genius of the rebels. Atufal, whom Delano considers a noble savage unjustly chained,
ends up being Babo's right hand man in the mutiny. The slave women, whose tenderness
toward their children Delano admires, are eager participants in the murder of their
Spanish slaveholders. If we are to comment this rebellion, on one hand we see he blacks
as violent people, capable of doing atrocious acts of inhumanity, but on the other hand we
can also understand them and they are entitled to behave like that. They are people who
fight for their freedom for a better life. They are human beings and it is not fair to
compare them with animals, as Delano did. The only problem is the society which made
them criminals, a society which enslaved them. For many years, "Benito Cereno" was
viewed as a tale about the struggle of good versus evil. According to this interpretation,
the blacks aboard the San Dominick represent "blackness" - i.e. moral depravity - in the
abstract. At the end of the tale, when Cereno declares that "the negro" has cast its shadow
upon him, he implicates the evil within human nature, whom the blacks metaphorically
represent. Logically thinking, the whites represent the good, but we may ask the simple
question: “Is that so?”

Another thing that worth mentioning is the motto from the vessel San Dominick
“follow your leader”. At a first glance one might think that it refers to Benito Cereno as
he is the white leader and the captain of the ship. But then another kind of leader is
revealed – Babo. He is the slave who wants to take command of the ship. Captain Delano
is stupidly unable to conceive of Babo, Atufal, or any black person as a leader. There is
no doubt that, of the characters in "Benito Cereno," Babo exhibits more than anyone else
the qualities of a true leader. He is resourceful, planning the series of masquerades on
board the San Dominick after Delano had spotted them. He is improvisatory and bold,
deciding on the fly to attempt to take the Bachelor's Delight. He has a creative,
performative flair. And yet the moment Babo is revealed as a leader, his power has
vanished. He is physically overwhelmed, and chooses to live out the rest of his brief life
in silence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. http://books.mirror.org/melville/benitocereno/s003.html

(TEXTUL), site accesat la data de 01.02.2010

2. http://www.gradesaver.com/benito-cereno/wikipedia
3. www.wikipedia.org

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