140 Changing With the Tide: The American Perspective

Mason Masotta

In Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, we are moving into literature beyond the nation because we are beginning to see that American influences, and even ideological changes, are no longer bound to the physical country of the United States of America. In the story, a crew of American sailors stumble upon a confusing wreck of a Spanish ship called the San Dominick. Once the Americans arrive on board, their confusion escalates as they meet its passengers.

As Captain Delano interacts with the ship’s captain and the slaves (which he views as cargo,) we begin to see American ideologies make their way into the story. When noticing the strange behaviors of the slaves on board this statement is made: “. . . long-continued suffering seemed to have brought out the less good-natured qualities of the negroes, besides, at the same time, impairing the Spaniards authority over them” (167). Delany sees African “cargo” moving freely around the ship–not in complete obedience to Cereno–revealing his limited understanding of black subjectivity and behavior.

In Delano’s mind, captured slaves are supposed to cheerfully serve without difficulty, and assume that only some form of tragedy brought about by the storms they sailed through has unleashed some latent, internal, “bad qualities.” This idea of how a slave on this ship should is supposed to behave is reflected in the way that Cereno’s main servant, Babo, is discussed and approved of: “But the good conduct of Babo, hardly more than the ill-behavior of others, seemed to withdraw the half-lunatic Don Benito from his cloudy languor” (168). Babo is differentiated from others on the ship. He appears entirely subservient to his master Don Benito, referring to him at all times as Master and refusing any level of compliment on his own work with the survival of the captain.

For this service, the American captain Delano states that Don Benito should see the faithful Babo as a friend, not as a slave (172). I think that it is very interesting for the American to have this kind of an epiphany upon boarding the ship. On one hand, it could be a case for an indication that America was slowly trying to move into a place of more racial acceptance, but on the other, we have to look at what behavior is and isn’t accepted by Delano. Babo may be faithful to Don Benito, but the others on board are not. Even though they claim that Babo should be rewarded as a friend and not simply as a slave they do not feel the same about the seemingly less obedient others onboard.


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The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature: A PSU-Based Project Copyright © 2016 by Mason Masotta is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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