Herman Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. He caught the scarlet fever around the age of five, and though he recovered quickly, his vision was permanently impaired. His father, Allan Melville, was a high-end importer and merchant. The Melvilles lived a prosperous life until Allan’s sudden death in 1832. To support himself, Melville worked as a bank clerk in the 1830s. At the same time, he was enrolled at Albany Classical School where he studied classic literature and began to write essays, poems and short stories. Once out of school, Melville tried his hand at a number of jobs including school teaching and surveying.
Melville eventually landed a job as a cabin boy in 1839 on a merchant ship. Satisfied, he went on his second voyage in 1841 on a whaling ship named the Acushnet. This second voyage ended up being the inspiration for Melville’s future writing career. The Acushnet brought Melville down to the Polynesian islands in 1842. Soon after, he and another crewmember deserted the ship and were captured by cannibals. Melville eventually escaped the islands four months later on another whaling ship named the Lucy Ann, but was locked up for joining the crew in an attempted mutiny. He eventually wound up in Hawaii where he made his way back to Massachusetts on the USS United States; he had been gone nearly four years.
Melville chose to write about this instance of slavery because of the Tryal Slave Ship Rebellion of 1805. He started writing the story after reading Captain Amasa Delano’s memoirs. It started as a slave rising on ship in the South Pacific near Chile. West Africans were bought by the Spanish and they were put on the ship to be brought to Buenos Aires in Argentina. At the time Argentina was a Spanish colony. When they arrived, they were brought to the port of Valpariso and the 72 Africans that survived boarded the Spanish ship, Tryal. The ship was meant to bring the slaves to the north slave markets in Peru and Ecuador.
In 1804, on their way there; Babo and Mori, the two leaders of the enslaved Africans, lead a successful rebellion. They took control and killed most of the Spanish aboard the ship but kept Captain Benito Cereno as a hostage. In February 1805, Captain Amasa Delano came across the Tryal ship. Delano brought them food and water but when he went back to his own Ship, Benito Cereno broke free and Delano’s crew members rushed back on the Tryal ship and killed most of the Africans. Babo was decapitated and his head was put on a pike. The Africans that remained were brought to Spanish authorities. Melville took what he had learned from the trial and of Delano’s memoirs and turned it into his own literary work.
Due to the ambiguity of “Benito Cereno” (1856), readers often find it challenging to determine what stance—if any—the text takes on slavery. Written just before American Civil War, Melville’s novella neither supports nor denounces slavery explicitly. However, many find the text’s focus on the topic to be part of a larger theme regarding the meaning of innocence. Melville’s choice to tell the story from a point of view that limits readers to a fictionalized version Captain Delano’s experiences often evokes a controversial sense of sympathy for all parties aboard the San Dominick.
The point of view in Melville’s text also caters to the theme of American identity. According to scholars such as Paul Downes, the story’s perspective “produced a character whose naïveté … laid bare the lines of association and identification that tie vulnerability to power, revolution to violence, and citizenship to rightlessness” (479). In other words, readers like Downes believe that Melville’s use of deception and naivety make the challenges within American ideology clearer. Delano, the only American in “Benito Cereno,” is portrayed as a strong, generous, and intelligent captain. Yet his inability to accurately assess the situation on the San Dominick challenges these portrayals and causes many to perceive his naivety as a nod to unsupported American exceptionalism.
The undying desire to define the American identity has kept “Benito Cereno” a canonized piece of literature throughout the years. While the situations of today differ from those of the 19th century, the story’s themes of innocence, self-identity, and the power (and danger) of naivety are consistently relevant within American society. This ambiguity and timeless relevance allows scholars to continue turning back to Melville’s novella for clues as to what it means to be an American.
Anderson, John. “The Tryal Slave Ship Rebellion, 1805.” BlackPast.org, n.d., blackpast.org/gah/tryal-slave-ship-rebellion-1805.
Biography.com Editors. “Herman Melville.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 9 Dec. 2015, biography.com/people/herman-melville-9405239.
Downes, Paul. “Melville’s Benito Cereno and the Politics of Humanitarian Intervention.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 103 no. 2, 2004, pp. 465-488. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/169143.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” 1856.