145 Men of Word and Action

Isabella McDonald

Melville makes use of irony to have things seem “normal” in the eyes of Captain Delano. Despite the doubts that Delano has at several points in the story, he views things as working the way they are “supposed to.” He views the enslaved peoples as inferior and without power. He sees the captain as powerful, despite his weak physicality. He remarks often, in the beginning, the helpful and outstanding behavior of Babo, separating him from the other slaves as an exception to the rule. “Marking the noisy indocility of the blacks in general, as well as what seemed the sullen inefficiency of the whites it was not without humane satisfaction that Captain Delano witnessed the steady good conduct of Babo.” He even goes as far as claiming that Babo is a friend to Benito and therefore “slave [Delano] cannot call him.”

“Somewhat annoyed by these conversational familiarities, Captain Delano turned curiously upon the attendant, then glanced inquiringly at his master; but, as if long wonted to these little informalities, neither master nor man seemed to understand him.” Babo rebels in subtle ways in front of Delano and here he is showing off a percentage of his authority by using familiarity instead of an obviously forcefulness. Cereno has been made forcefully familiar with this show of power from Babo and so isn’t reacting like this is out of character behavior. It is through little moments like this and Babo’s refusal to speak after being captured, that Babo rebels against his slavery and the white slavers. “[Babo] held up the trickling razor, saying, with a sort of half humorous sorrow, “See, master–you shook so–here’s Babo’s first blood.” This probably isn’t the first time he drew blood given the takeover of the ship and this is ironic in the way that the audience is fully suspicious from the beginning about Babo. His humor in this situation is also suspicious.

Melville depicts slave rebels as renegades, suggesting that if one manages to plan and follow through with a plan of escape, then they are far more intelligent and well-spoken than other enslaved peoples. They are considered brutal and work in sneaky, violent ways to seek their freedom to the point of enslaving white people when they get the chance. However, Douglass writes about intelligence, loyalty, and a sort of forgiveness. Madison isn’t a cruel punisher, but a tolerant revolter. Instead of slowly feeding the audience hints of uncanny and then suddenly and clearly placing Babo as the aggressor of the story in his search for freedom, Douglass from the start talks about freedom from slavery. He doesn’t paint any of those escaping as aggressive or violent, but instead mostly nonviolent. At one point, during the last escape to freedom, only two white men die in their revolt. Madison makes a point of saying he isn’t a murderer and in fact kept the others from killing Tom Grant. “Now I have saved your life twice within these last twenty minutes,-for, when you lay helpless on deck, my men were about to kill you. I held them in check. And if you now (seeing I am your friend and not your enemy) persist in your resistance to my authority, I give you fair warning YOU SHALL DIE” (49). Madison is very direct compared to Babo although both take control of a boat and are viewed as quite intelligent. The narration of both stories differ in how Douglass is constantly denouncing slave trade while Melville’s story paints the enslaved Blacks as the evil of the story and not slavery itself. Douglass, being an “ex-slave who often still defined himself as a fugitive” wrote about the hardships of slavery and gave humanity to his characters to increase their likability; Melville did not (xxix). Madison was a person who understandably wanted to be free and the way he was written, he had the narrator, characters, and the reader cheering him on. Babo was a man who also wanted freedom from slavery but he was written as an intelligent, savage sort of person who didn’t hesitate to kill or take advantage of those around him.

I read Samuel Ringgold Ward’s “Men and Women of Mark” and it mainly served to direct my focus to exceptionalism. Babo and Madison are both seen as exceptions to their race in terms of intelligence and authority. Ward talks about how slaves who managed to run away were described as having quite a lot of intelligence, reasonable charm, and sometimes just white passing. Neither should be seen as particularly better than others of the same race or ethnicity just because they were the leaders. Their intelligence doesn’t make them any more human than anyone else, but they are viewed as more deserving of respect by the white people around them. Delano says that he can’t call Babo a slave but a friend to Cereno because of his mannerisms and his way with words while Madison’s stature and way of speaking commanded the begrudging respect of Grant who would have died if the over revolters had anything to say about it.


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

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