Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

Since little irritates me more than buying a book that I end up hating and being awkwardly stuck with it (I’m looking at you Leviathan and the Air-Pump) I try to do as much of my for-class reading online as possible. Because of this I often forget/overlook silly (actually important) things like who wrote the novel or when it was written until I get curious and go check. With Benito Cereno (published 1855) I was about one chapter in when I thought to myself, “Damn this is well-written! I wonder who this author is- Melville, of course!” Herman Melville wrote one of my all-time favorite short stories, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” so it’s not surprising to me how well this novella (or very long short story, it’s on the cusp) is written.

It’s essentially a mystery with a lot of Gothic elements and some truly wonderful suspense. Benito Cereno is referred to as a novella, but I read it in one day and for a novella it is very short. The plot follows Amasa Delano, American captain of the hilariously named ship, Bachelor’s Delight, who finds a Spanish ship sailing erratically off the coast of Chile. This ship is Benito Cereno’s San Dominick and, upon boarding, Captain Delano finds a ship full of starving people, with African slaves – who are moving freely throughout the ship – far outnumbering Spaniards. Delano speaks with Cereno who tells him that the ship has been drifting for a long time and that a fever-on-scurvy epidemic carried off almost his entire crew, including Alexandro Aranda, the “master” of the Africans on board. Delano decides to help Cereno and his crew, giving them supplies and a new sail, and is especially taken by Cereno’s servant Babo, who refuses to leave his master’s side for any reason.

Like I said, however, the narrative has some gothic elements. Isolated away from his crew, Delano feels vaguely uneasy on board the San Dominick. Despite being assured that the African slaves on board are perfectly harmless, seeing four elderly men serenely picking oakum, while others sharpen hatchets, leaves Delano unsettled. In some ways the slaves seem to have been given too many liberties, sleeping on deck, being left largely unsupervised, and occasionally fighting with Spaniards without consequence. Cereno himself continuously unnerves Delano, having whispered meetings with Babo, inquiring in too-much detail about the particulars of Delano’s crew, fainting randomly, and refusing to send Babo away so the captains can converse privately. Noticing the side-glances and whispers of the crew, Delano becomes convinced that Cereno is plotting to kill him, but periodically tames his fear before it inevitably flares up again. Finally seeing his ship reappear, Delano invites the now re-equipped Cereno to his ship for coffee, to which Cereno refuses, twice, and Delano concludes that he’s a jerkface and goes to leave. Cereno then rushes after him to shake his hand vigorously and see him off, but the moment Delano’s crew draws the plank away Cereno makes a wild leap for Delano, followed by a knife-wielding Babo. Delano’s fears are confirmed, but as he attempts to restrain Cereno, he realizes that Babo is trying to kill Cereno, and that no one is trying to kill him. He feels left out and curious at the same time. Babo is bound and Delano’s crew re-captures the San Dominick, taking it to Lima so that Babo may be put on trial.

The narration is pretty much over at this point, there are literally just a few pages left, and at this point I had been on the edge of my seat for unbearably long. I had to know what had happened and how it had happened – and I had already heard about the ending – now that is the hallmark of great storytelling. As is revealed in the final chapters of the story, there had been a slave uprising on board the San Dominick, wherein nearly every Spaniard had been killed. Cereno is spared because he is, through reckless accident, the only navigator left on board, and the slaves are demanding to be returned to Africa. His friend Aranda, who is also the slave’s owner, had been killed the first day, and his bones had been put on display above the words “Follow Your Leader,” all of which was concealed from Delano. After all the loose ends are tied up and the trial ends, Babo is killed and his head is displayed on a pike; Cereno is permanently scarred by the experience and takes refuge in a monastery, dying a few months later. We are not given the specifics for the other slaves on board, but I believe that they are simply returned to slavery, seeing as they are too valuable to kill. Here’s the thing though … this is a true story.

Just let that sink in for a moment. This is a true story with only some very minor alterations. First of all, there are all kinds of things that you need to confront when you realize that this actually happened and that, while uncommon, slave uprisings on ships were not unheard of. Before I get into that though, can Melville just get some props for having the grapes to take someone’s already published, real-life account and be like, “Man, great story … I can make it so much better,” and then he does just that. Take that Aranda! You just got Melville’d. The real Delano published his account in 1817, some information about which can be found on the Drew Archival Library site, and there was a real-life Babo and Benito Cereno; as far as names are concerned Melville just renamed the ships. Shockingly, the real ship names were far more ominous, with the Spanish San Dominick actually being the Tryal and the American Bachelor’s Delight originally named Perseverance. Did Melville read those names and be like, “Woah, way too obvious, better change those names,” so it didn’t give away the plot? Trivia: there is more than one ship named Tryal (or Trial or Tryall) and one, the Tryall, was Australia’s oldest known shipwreck. After class my professor informs me that the San Dominick was named that way to intentionally evoke the Haitian revolution (Melville also moved the plot back in time slightly for the same effect). The Bachelor’s Delight was probably renamed because Melville’s re-write of Delano makes him stand in for America and he is also kind of oblivious, hence the silly ship name. Part of this characterization is essential, however, because if he figured out the plot when the reader did 1) the story would not be as suspenseful; 2) he and his entire crew would die; 3) that’s not what happened in real life. The first part of this, as mentioned, is because Delano is a stand-in for America and the North in the slavery debate.

This brings me to a discussion of slavery within the novella. Delano’s crew is off screen for almost the entire scope of the plot, but Delano is there, in his own self-congratulatory way, thinking about how slaves are like animals, so natural and serene, like does and doves … while they’re sharpening hatchets and giving him side-eye. After Cereno and a few lucky crew members are saved Cereno tells Delano to abandon the ship and let the slaves go. Delano Americas and mans at him thusly: “What, you mean you’re giving up rights to that ship packed with money and things that can be turned into money?! I call dibs, sucker. Gentlemen, let’s do this!” to which he crew responds, “Huzzah!” and they pepper a disarmed ship with metal until the San Dominick is recaptured. Delano, who thinks slaves are “Newfoundland dogs” (see Wikipedia for what exactly that implies) has seen them revolt in order to return to Africa, but since they are valuable he re-captures them and returns them to slavery. In real life I believe five people were tried for the uprising, but still, the vast majority were simply re-enslaved, though I believe there were no women or children on board the real ship. Also, the real-life Cereno (who was quite unlike the fainting, fictional Cereno) was not amused that Delano captured his ship, in fact, he fainted him all the way to court trying to get it back. Incidentally, for a nice list of the ways in which the book differs from the original “in real life” account this writeup is very helpful and interesting.

Returning to Melville’s account … The reader is presented with a group of people who are willing to do what ever it takes to secure their freedom – how could you argue with that? – but who are then portrayed as sadistically violent, making you sympathize with the Spaniards on board. You really feel for Cereno, caught in a protracted hostage situation that he is clearly not equipped to handle psychologically (hence all the fainting), so much so that he dies a few months after Babo’s trial. You also sympathize with the slaves who just want to go home and have women, infants, children, and elderly on board. Caught in between you’re given the discomfort of slavery as it was when Melville was writing. Six short years before the official start of the Civil War, it was obvious by then how problematic slavery was, with many acknowledging that it was both “wrong” and “completely essential to the economy of the south.” One issue was that many slaves were sold in the North and moved to the South, if the North freed the slaves, there was no refund – the North kept the cash and the South lost what it bought. The South was going to be pretty intentionally bankrupted by the North. This is part of why the Northern Delano being portrayed as so consumed with money is important, because he willingly participates in the slave trade because it will get him a lot of cash. Those slaves, once re-captured, with the original owner dead, were his, he could have freed them, but didn’t. Why? Because they were worth money.

I believe that Melville chose to re-write Delano’s original account as an intentionally uncomfortable text. You are supposed to find sympathies with all parties on board the ship and wonder if slavery has done to the rebelling slaves what it did to their masters, which is make them inhumanly vicious. (For example: instead of simply throwing someone overboard they tied their hands and feet first so they would die a hellish death with no hope of rescue.) I will say that I have sympathy for Cereno, in part because the narrative is structured that way, and in part because he is a captive who is unable to deal with the marionette show he is forced to perform. However I also want the slaves to be able to get back to Africa and I have no objection to their use of violence to make that happen. When you read you’re torn between these two opposing sympathies, and I think that may be Melville’s point.

Interestingly, while Melville writes Delano as somewhat, shall we say, unobservant, Babo, and to a slightly lesser extent his direct assistants, are portrayed as brilliant. Babo’s decapitated head is famously called that “hive of subtlety” at the close of the text. Babo is a genius for orchestrating this successful uprising (reminding you of Haiti yet?) that only ended through a series of accidents or – as we are perhaps “supposed” to read it – by American intervention.

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