The San Dominick
The Spanish ship aboard which most of the story’s action takes place, is itself one of the book’s most prominent symbols. From our very first glimpses of the ship (through Captain Delano’s eyes), we become aware that the ship is a symbol of death and decay: “Her keel seemed laid, her ribs put together, and she launched, from Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones… Battered and moldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay…” and so on (pp. 146-47). Adding to this impression, of course, is the figurehead at the prow of the vessel: at first veiled and shrouded (with canvas, “decently to hide its decay,” p. 147), but later revealed as the bleached skeleton of Don Aranda, “death for the figurehead,” p. 205), and a replacement for the ship’s original figurehead, the image of Christopher Columbus. The inscription chalked beneath the figurehead—“Follow Your Leader”—also becomes a symbol for death, owing to its proximity to Don Aranda’s skeleton (indeed, the narrator describes Cereno’s death with the same inscription: “Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader,” p. 226). As a symbol of decay and death, the San Dominick is probably intended to represent the decrepit nature of the “Old World”—Spain and, by extension, Europe—when compared with the vitality and vibrancy of the New World, the young republic of America. (To that extent, Captains Cereno and Delano serve a similar symbolic function, highlighting in the contrast between their demeanor—Cereno, enigmatic and recalcitrant; Delano, gregarious and optimistic—the difference between the Old and New Worlds). The virility of the New World, contrasted with the barrenness of the Old, was a common theme in American literature of the early 19th-century. Melville, however, may be employing this metamorphic trope with irony, since it is the American captain, Delano, who ultimately aids in the defeat of a slave rebellion, insuring that the blacks aboard the San Dominick will remain captive rather than free men, women, and children.
He is presented as the “villain” of the work, and primarily through his physical attribute of black skin serves the familiar (in white, Western literature, at any rate) symbolic function of embodying evil. “What has cast such a shadow upon you?” [Delano asks Cereno at the book’s end.] “The Negro” (p. 225). As one critic has expressed, “Babo obviously enjoys evil for itself alone” (Miller, p. 158). Whether Melville is affirming or challenging the traditional symbolic connection of blackness and evil is, of course, one of the key interpretive questions with which readers of the text must wrestle.
The Ashantee blacks
They sit on the deck of the San Dominick, always polishing their hatchets; together with the four elderly slaves who are oakum-pickers, and who at one point entangle the rope in a great, Gordian-like knot (p. 178). This group may evoke for some readers ancient mythological images of the Fates, sitting “in judgment” above humankind, weaving destiny the way one would weave a rope, and sometimes creating a knot in the process. These characters may thus symbolize the complexity of Delano’s fate—and, if the symbolic equation of Delano with young America is to be presumed, the fate of the nation—over and against Delano’s relatively simple and naïve faith in divine guidance and favor: “Yes, all is owing to Providence…” (p. 224). They thus could deliver a symbolic warning to Delano and to the nation he represents.