“Benito Cereno” was written by Herman Melville and published in 1855. Melville was born in 1819 in New York, New York, the third child to parents Allan and Maria Gansevoort Melvill. Allan Melvill was a merchant who decided to move his family to Albany, New York to try his hand in the fur and felt business. He passed away suddenly leaving his family in a financial deficit. Melville’s older brother took over the family business, and Melville joined him several years later (Melville 161-162). Maria Melvil added the “e” to their last name after her husband’s death.
At age 20, Melville took his first job at sea as a cabin boy on the merchant ship the St. Lawrence (“Herman Melville”). After this expedition, and seeking out the west, he again took employment on the whaling ship Acushmet. After the Acushmet, he joined the crew of the whaling ship the Lucy Ann and subsequently the Charles and Henry, where he served as a harpooner (Coulson). Working aboard ships gave Melville intimate knowledge of life on the sea. He extended that knowledge to his famous whaling novel, Moby-Dick (1851), and his fictional account of the revolt on a Spanish slave ship, titled Benito Cereno.
“Benito Cereno” was published just before the Civil War. It gave American readers something to think about when they considered their dark skinned counterparts. Benito Cereno is about an American captain, Amasa Delano, who commands a sealer with valuable cargo resting in the harbor of St. Maria off the southern coast of Chile. He encounters a ship that appears to be in distress. The Spanish ship, with nearly an all-black crew, is not waving a flag signifying her country.
Captain Delano decides to aid the ship, the San Dominic. Upon embarking, he is told that most of the crew has died from illness and rough sea storms. Delano realizes it is a Spanish ship carrying slaves. The ship’s captain, Don Benito Cereno, appears weak and distressed, and he tells Delano that he is ill. He introduces Babo, his slave, who is constantly at his side. Captain Delano finds some of the behavior of the slaves as disconcerting, but dismisses it as hardship on the crew. All his attempts at giving aid to the captain are thwarted, and Delano bids adieu to the Spanish ship and her crew. As he descends back on his own ship, Benito leaps after him, aspiring safety for himself and his remaining crew members. Delano realizes at this moment that the slaves have taken over Benito’s ship, and he and his crew subdue the slaves (Melville 163-217).
Much has been speculated about Benito Cereno and its common thread to the San Domingo Rebellion of 1799, the Creole and Amistad mutinies. Similar to Melville’s story, The La Amistad incident involved a Spanish trade ship, which was taken over by 53 slaves on July 2, 1839. The slaves kept the navigator alive, similar to how Benito Cereno was kept alive. The Spanish ship was intercepted off the coast of Long Island. After long fought battles in the courtroom, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in favor that the slaves were taken in “violation of the 1808 International Slave Trade Act,” and won their freedom after two years of imprisonment in March of 1841 (Greenspan 2014).
Benito Cereno has been thought to raise a curtain on Melville’s feelings towards slavery in the United States. Many accounts of mutiny on land and sea had been published, and this genre of writing was not new to American readers. A quote from Melville states, “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man.” This quote tells us that we are all connected in the story of Benito Cereno. At first, the reader is not in tune with the slaves having the upper hand of the ship. It is not until later that the reader learns that these men wanted freedom, and not the servitude and oppression they were headed for. In Melville’s Benito Cereno, Babo is later tried and hanged, but in real life, some slaves who contested their capture on the seas and revolted were given freedom when brought to court.
In the story, “seeing is believing” seems to be Captain Delano’s personal motto. The captain is oblivious to the fact that his eyes are actually obscuring the truth. Delano’s reliance on sight, and his inherent racism, leave him in the dark through much of the story. The reader is likewise in the dark. The narrative technique intentionally obscures the truth from the reader, revealing the reader’s own personal biases and unconscious racism.
Coulson, Douglas M. “Distored Records in “Benito Cereno” and the Slave Rebellion Trade.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities. 1st ed. Vol. 22. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 1-37. Print.
Greenspan, Jesse. “The Amistad Slave Rebellion, 175 Years Ago.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 02 July 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.
“Herman Melville.” American Experience. EGBH Educational Foundation, n.d., www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/whaling-melville/. Accessed 14 Nov 2016.
Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” 1855. Rept. in Currents in American Literature. Comp Abby Goode. 159-217. Print.