Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 1: “In the year 1799…” to “…a fourth mate was to be seen” (pp. 144-153)
Captain Amasa Delano, commanding an American trading and sealing ship in the waters of Santa Maria, an island off the southern coast of Chile, spies a Spanish frigate sailing, somewhat erratically, into the harbor. The ship appears quite dilapidated, is flying no flags, and has her prow shrouded by a canvas, making any identification beyond that of her country of origin difficult; Delano does, however, ultimately see the ship’s name, the San Dominick, and a striking motto scrawled in paint near the canvas: “SEGUID VUESTRO JEFE,” or “follow your leader.” Surmising that the San Dominick is in need of aid, the good-hearted Delano leaves his own ship in his whaleboat and sails to meet the presumably imperiled vessel. As he nears, Delano sees that the San Dominick is a slave ship; a crowd of blacks and whites greets Delano as he boards, “but the latter outnumbering the former…” Those aboard the San Dominick tell Delano that their voyage has been victimized by both storm and sickness, and most of the Spanish crew has died. Delano makes special note of ten of the blacks: four elderly men who are making “oakum,” a “loose hemp or jute fiber… used chiefly for caulking seams in wooden ships and packing pipe joints” (American Heritage Dictionary); and the other six of whom are steadily, methodically sharpening knives.
Captain Delano offers aid to Benito Cereno, the San Dominick’s captain, beginning with water: Delano sends his men back to the sealer in the whaleboat to retrieve water and other stores. As Delano remains behind, observing the suffering and disordered circumstances aboard the San Dominick, he concludes that the ship’s sad state is probably due to the sad state of its commander—“debility, constitutional or induced by hardships bodily and mental.” Delano notes with satisfaction, however, a black servant called Babo is faithfully attending to Cereno, consoling him; and Delano finally concludes that he has perhaps been too harsh in his initial assessment of Cereno. Perhaps, thinks Delano, Cereno is merely demonstrating, not mental instability, but the formal reserve with which many ship commanders exercise their duties. But Delano also considers that such conduct is hardly becoming of a ship’s commander when the ship is in such dire straits as is the San Dominick, bereft of most of its officers, populated by a noisy and unruly population of slaves.
Melville based Benito Cereno on a historical incident. Amasa Delano (1763-1823) was a real American sea captain, as well as a writer (and a relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). An episode in Delano’s Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817) inspired Melville’s story. Delano actually did encounter a Spanish vessel that slaves commandeered. Unlike his counterpart in Melville’s text, the historical Delano was not fooled by the ruse that everything aboard the ship was normal; he brought it into port, personal ambivalence regarding the slave trade notwithstanding (see Delano’s entry in the American National Biography, www.anb.org). “Melville’s ‘deposition’ [in the latter part of the novel] is roughly half from Delano’s much longer section of documents, half his own writing” (Baym et al., p. 2224 n1).
Ambivalence about slavery has, of course, solidified into rejection since the 19th century; and any modern reader of Benito Cereno will have to come to terms very quickly with the question of whether Melville’s tale is a racist one. On the one hand, of course, charges of “racism” against a text first published in 1855 may not carry much weight. Like any author, Melville was a man of his time, capable of uncritically adopting stereotypes that readers today would reject. On the other hand, such charges are worth considering if readers decide that the text, as an entity in and of itself, is capable of perpetuating destructive racial prejudice. There can be no denying, for example, that “blackness” is equated in the text (as the color has been in much world mythology and literature) with menace, savagery, falsehood, and evil. Joyce Carol Oates points to an exchange near the story’s conclusion that “so casually aligns the ‘negro’ with evil” (“Introduction,” p. xvi), the conversation between Delano and Cereno: “…what has cast such a shadow upon you?” “The Negro” (p. 225). In contrast, however, other critics remind readers that the slaves could be seen as positive characters, rising up against white oppression, striving to become active shapers of their fate rather than passive victims. As Joshua Leslie argues, in this tale, “the slave is the creative force,” albeit a “master parasitic” one (Cambridge Companion, p. 54).
Melville chooses to narrate his tale through Delano’s eyes. Delano’s point of view is, necessarily, limited; and although he strikes readers as a careful observer of his physical surroundings, we will discover, by the story’s end, that Delano has grossly misinterpreted what he observes at virtually every turn. Why? Scholar Andrew Delbanco provides a pithy and accurate answer: Delano is “insufferably smug” (Cambridge Companion, p. 284). This smugness asserts itself in Delano’s seemingly unshakeable conviction that he understands human nature: for example, we read early in this section of the captain’s “singularly undistrustful good nature,” his reticence to impute “malign evil in man” (p. 144). The narrator, of course, then immediately questions whether Delano’s outlook on humanity is justified, given a “view of what humanity is capable” (p. 144). Readers may at first be inclined to sympathize with Delano: after all, he is attempting to render assistance to a fellow, sea-going vessel that is in distress. Over the course of the text, however, readers may grow increasingly frustrated with what seems to be Delano’s stubborn reluctance to acknowledge the truth of the situation. Delano’s view of human nature will be challenged time and again in this story, and the conflict between his preconceptions and the reality he confronts aboard the San Dominick establish one of the tale’s central themes.
Much of Delano’s misapprehension can also be blamed on the religious blinders he wears. As scholar Jenny Franchot comments, “Delano is so drenched in his Protestant suspicions of the San Dominick’s fearful Catholic interiorities that he cannot see the real horror at work before him, the presence of slavery in the New World and the slave mutiny it inspires” (Cambridge Companion, p. 179). Franchot goes on to argue that the monastic imagery that surfaces (e.g., “ship-load of monks,” p. 146) serve as expressions of Delano’s religiously motivated prejudice. (Even the name of Cereno’s ship, the San Dominick, references the founder of a monastic order, Saint Dominic). In this light, Delano may serve to remind readers familiar with Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, of Ishmael, who finds his religious preconceptions challenged by the “pagan” Queegqueeg. Where Ishmael, however, learns to overcome his born-and-bred Presbyterianism in order to bond with Queegqueeg, Delano’s religious faith keeps him at a distance, both from Cereno and from the slaves aboard Cereno’s ship—enabling, incidentally, Delano to continue to regard the latter as subhuman savages.
The imagery of decay and death dominates this section, as it does much of the story. The oakum-pickers, for example, accompany their work with “a continuous, low, monotonous chant… like so many gray-headed bagpipers playing a funeral march” (p. 148). Delano remains, however, insufficiently responsive to the funereal atmosphere aboard the Spanish ship, and thus unaware of the danger he and Cereno are in. At a deeper level, however, the death imagery could represent Melville’s view of the “Old World” embodied in this commandeered Spanish vessel. It is surely not accidental that Melville’s protagonist is an upbeat, optimistic (whether warranted or not) American who is “rescuing” (so he believes) a decrepit ship of slavery (literal and metaphorical) from Europe. Like the society from which she sails, the San Dominick is a relic, characterized by “faded grandeur” (p. 147). Beyond even being merely dead, we are told that the ship “seems unreal” (p. 148). The death imagery may thus be reinforcing (not, perhaps, without some irony), the early American literary tradition of celebrating the United States as the “new world” of “new life.”
Benito Cereno himself may be read as reinforcing this new world/old world dichotomy; for example, Delano at times attributes his counterpart’s reserved nature to “his national formality” (p. 149), thus defining Cereno as an emblem of his nation rather than as an individual. Readers, of course, know—or at least will by the text’s end—the true reasons that Cereno behaves as he does; but Delano’s interpretations of that behavior remain significant as a possible critique of the “old world”—as do his implied criticisms of Cereno as a commanding officer that shortly follow (see, e.g., pp. 150, 157, 159). “Captain Delano was not without the idea that had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass” (p. 150)—thus, Cereno serves for Delano as a symbol of the old world’s lack of vitality. Again, however, readers cannot adopt this interpretation at face value; for the remainder of the story serves to call it into question.
The other character who arrests attention in this section is Babo, the Negro constantly by Cereno’s side, whom Delano takes—understandably, given his preconceptions and his era—to be Cereno’s manservant. Yet this understanding ultimately, of course, proves incorrect. Scholar Elizabeth Renker remarks, “The true face of Babo, the character called ‘the black’ (as if archetypal), remains impenetrable, his true voice unspoken” (Cambridge Companion, p. 129). Although he is presented, in the end, as the “villain” of the piece, Babo may emerge as an argument against the supposed “racism” of Benito Cereno. To be sure, he plays the expected role of a black in that day and age: his “good conduct” is “less a servant than a devoted companion” (p. 151). But remember that these are Delano’s wrong interpretations of who Babo is. Babo is, therefore, subverting the expectations of white men for his own survival. He could be described as “crafty” or “cunning”—and although these words can be weighed down by negative connotations, they can also be seen as the mirror of such positive, generally valued character traits as resourcefulness and intelligence. Babo, like the text as a whole, defies simplistic, easy interpretation.