Benito Cereno by Herman Melville, 1855
by Herman Melville, 1855
In the story "Benito Cereno" Amaso Delano, an American sea captain commanding the Bachelor's Delight, is anchored off the shore of southern Chile when he spots another ship moving about mysteriously in the waters. Without apparent concern for his own safety, although pirates are in the area, Delano packs food into a small boat and leaves to bring aid, if aid is needed, to fellow seamen. At first unable to understand the nature of the strange ship because of the persistent fog, Delano gets closer and realizes the San Dominick is a Spanish merchant ship carrying a cargo of slaves. But the San Dominick is more than Delano is able to apprehend. It is actually a microcosm of gigantic proportions, and herein lies the real story that Herman Melville tells.
"Benito Cereno" is about perception and those factors that inhibit it, causing humans to persist in behavior that is violent, shameful, warlike, and inhuman. Aboard the San Dominick are representatives of three cultures: the new world, the old world, and the third world. Amaso Delano, the American ship captain, commands the Bachelor's Delight with a firm hand. He is a man respected by his crew, fair, honest in his dealings, pragmatic in his practices, a man who moves immediately to correct problems. Delano believes himself to be protected by his religious beliefs that deny inherent evil in humans and extol good works. Benito Cereno, the Spanish ship captain, is a scion of old world aristocracy, dressed in old world finery with a body servant constantly at his side. He appears ill and unable to act except autocratically. To Delano the Spanish captain appears as a perfect example of the decay of an outmoded civilization. Benito Cereno is so weak he needs to be supported to walk; he seems incompetent, both physically and mentally. The ship he commands is in great disarray, filthy, and rotting. The association of the San Dominick with Catholicism is clear, and, as we learn, evil is prevalent in Cereno's world. The third world is typified by Babo. Masquerading as Cereno's body servant, Babo is the leader of the insurrectionists, for a time the real commander of the ship and all aboard it.
On board the slave ship conditions are abominable. Though Aranda, owner of the slaves, allows them certain freedoms, he does so at his peril. The ship's sternpiece makes the point clearly, if symbolically: "But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like sternpiece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked."
This figure of the masked satyr holding his foot on the body of a writhing figure, also masked, points to the ironies of the reversals to follow and asks the essential question: "Who is master, who is slave?" Or does not the situation enslave master as well as slave? When Babo and his people can, they revolt and slave becomes master: when Delano arrives he is able to free Cereno and to capture those who had previously been in authority.
Babo and his compatriots fight for freedom. Their behavior during the revolt is horribly atrocious. What they do to Aranda's body is too terrible for many Westerners to conceive. But from another point of view, one based on knowledge of tribal practices, totem figures, and religious ceremonies, the behavior of the blacks seems completely credible. Nor can one say that any of the three civilizations represented are without sin or free from shameful practices. What the Spaniards do to Babo after he is captured is evidence enough and points to perhaps a final irony. At his death Don Benito does follow his leader, but who is the leader? Aranda, whose skeleton is tied to the figure head, or Babo, whose head is stuck on a pole in the town square?
Point of view in the story is intricate and thematically functional. When the story begins readers identify with Delano, who is the dominant point-of-view character for some pages into the narrative. But an omniscient narrator carefully guides reader responses as it becomes clearer that a mystery exists on board ship and that the mystery involves more than Delano is able to perceive. Delano's perceptions are guided by his stereotypical beliefs about the three cultures represented on ship. Once readers begin to recognize this fact they must begin to disassociate from Delano and to peer over his shoulder rather than see through his eyes.
A series of events provides evidence against Delano's reliability, especially the penultimate shaving scene in which Babo uses the Spanish flag as a shaving apron draped about Cereno's neck. So skillful, though, is Melville in running suspense parallel with foreshadowing that most American readers doubt Delano's conclusions even though they may reach the initial revelation simultaneously with Delano.
This revelation is, however, not the climax of the story. There is much more to come: Melville discards Delano as point-of-view character as readers follow the American sailors in putting down the rebellion. There follows the lengthy deposition in legal language of the time. Only now after sufficient time has passed can Delano and Cereno be brought together again and the reader join them in what is the true climax of the story, occurring several pages before the end. Delano says to Cereno: "You are saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?" Don Benito's reply ("The negro") carries with it the immense ethical and political implications of slavery, the kind of people who engage in it, and the horrible atrocities both masters and slaves commit in its name.
Babo dies in punishment for his "crimes." Cereno dies, unable to achieve absolution in his own mind and soul. Delano escapes, hardly touched by the horror around him, his innocence and naivety protecting him from experiencing true terror. But Delano is not free from guilt whether he knows it or not; he can come to know terror. He supports the idea of slavery, rejects the blacks as less than human, and will not speculate upon meaning. Surely Melville meant "Benito Cereno," published in 1855, to be among other things a word of warning to his own countrymen on the eve of the Civil War.