Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819 so he grew up in a time where slavery was still common and accepted, but in an area in which blacks were treated with much more respect than they were in the south. His father’s relatives could be traced back to a man who was a part of the Boston Tea Party and both his mother and father had relatives who fought with the union in the Revolutionary war (Johnson). Melville had many jobs growing up, including teaching, being a bank clerk, and sailing on a whaling ship, which is what jump started his writing career (Johnson).
Many of the stories that Melville writes take place out on the sea and tend to be quite adventurous and unexpected, much like Benito Cereno. This style is more than likely inspired by the number of his jobs being on ships growing up. These factors greatly influence the way he writes, especially relating to race in Benito Cereno.
Benito Cereno is about an American whaling ship that comes across a Spanish slave boat that has been secretly taken over by the slaves.
The majority of the story involves the captain roaming the ship and being quite suspicious with what is going on, but he never catches on to anything, until the very end when it is revealed the slaves are actually in control of the ship.. This story has many reoccurring elements of racial grayness and foreshadowing that occurs thought the entire story. Herman Melville’s unique take on race in Benito Cereno shows that both races, black and white, share a “gray area” of personalities that are rarely observed.
Benito Cereno begins near a harbor at the southern tip of Chili in 1799 on an American whaling ship, the Bachelors Delight. Amaso Delano, Captain of the Bachelors Delight, notices in the distance a ragged and beat-up looking ship, this ship is known as the San Dominick. Upon stepping foot on the ship he is immediately greeted both by white sailors and black slaves, including Captain Benito Cereno and his personal slave, Babo. The ship turns out to be a Spanish slave boat on its way to Callao that had been stranded due to some complications.
They tell him that they encountered terrible storms and becasue of these storms, they have lost many men and a large portion of their supplies. Delano finds the cooperation of the blacks and whites aboard the ship slightly suspicious, but he comes to no conclusion of any sorts. He gifts Cereno and his men some of their supplies, but as he is preparing to leave, Cereno leaps overboard and Babo follows wielding a dagger. Shortly after this, the skeleton of the of the original slave master, Alexandro Aranda, is revealed on the San Dominick’s figure head and the slaves aboard began attacking Delano and his men.
Delano is able to cease the fighting and stop Babo from killing Cereno, here it is revealed that the slaves overthrew the crew, killed the slave master, and took control by placing Babo in power. When they saw the San Dominick in the beginning of the story, Babo allowed Cereno to be viewed as captain even though Babo was in charge all along and instructed the original crew to be quiet or face death (Byers). The main character, Captain Delano, is slow to realizing the true nature of what had become of the ship.
He has a hard time believing that the slaves were at all bad people, so he cannot tie all the suspicion he is getting together to make any sense. Despite what how he views slaves and blacks in general, he still has Babo tried and hung for the atrocities he committed. Benito Cereno shows us that both whites and blacks alike, despite what people of that time thought, were the same when it came down to the way we behaved socially. Both races could be brutal and malevolent towards the opposite race and at the same time they could be kind and loving to one another.
No one in this story is good or bad, everyone has their faults at some point, some of which can be justified. This is what creates the gray in this story, everyone having something that puts them in the wrong, despite what they think may be right (Henderson). Grayness is mentioned many times in the story and all those are not specifically in relation to race, but in other ways as well. A major example of the grayness in this story is in this excerpt: “The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray.
The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mould. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms (Melville). ” Captain Delano believed that blacks were kind-hearted and humble people and may have had good intentions, but he still found nothing wrong with the slaves aboard the San Dominick.
He even thought Babo as an ideal servant for Captain Cereno, saying he was submissive, yet happy (Richards). Delano may have good thoughts about the slaves he still believes nothing is wrong with the idea of them and that kind of thinking settles more on the bad side of things. While Benito Cereno and Babo on the other hand are what really create the gray in the story. Benito Cereno was a captain of a slave ship, so there was no question that he was in favor of slavery also considering that he had a personal slave servant.
Babo was a slave on this ship, he was enslaved, like all the other slaves, for no reason other than that the whites thought they needed him. So Babo overthrew Cereno and his men, took over his ship, and killed a large majority of them in the resulting battle. This could be viewed as revenge and simply sending a message to the idea of slavery or it could be viewed as the slaughter of both black and white men that never should have happened. This is an example of the “gray,” it contains both good and bad, justice and injustice.
Melville does not want you to see everyone doing evil things as evil, but simply viewing the actions as evil. He wants us to understand that people are not bad or evil, it is the actions that those people do that are bad or evil (May). The story was written a few years before the Civil War, so nearly everyone’s mindset in that time was that slavery was acceptable and despite that, Herman Melville was able to tell a story that would allow the people of that time to see that whites and blacks are truly equal and should be treated as such (May).
Leadership plays a huge part in Benito Cereno, but in Benito Cereno it is mainly used to control others, whether that is slavery or simply to hide a secret from foreign visitors. To Captain Delano, Benito Cereno is the leader of his ship, but to Cereno and everyone aboard the San Dominick except Delano, Babo is the leader. Babo does a great job in keeping his title even when he is being portrayed as a mere servant. In fact the fact that Babo disguised himself as a servant and follower of Cereno is one of the reasons Delano could not come to the conclusion that Babo was incharge (May).
Babo is actually quite a good leader, considering he did lead an uprising to take over a boat and he was able to control everyone aboard, both black and white, to keep quiet when Delano stepped aboard. The slaves original leader, Alexadro Aranda was killed by the revolting slaves. Babo, upon placing Aranda’s skeleton on the hull of the ship for all to see, writes in chalk “Follow your Leader. ” The “Leader” that Babo is referring to is usually viewed as Babo or the original slave master, Alexandro Aranda (Richards).
Babo is this leader in the way that he has assumed power and is telling the other slaves to follow what he has done and become better, it is also used as a scare tactic to the white prisoners aboard the ship, it basically says that if you say anything when Delano is aboard you will end up like all the other dead white sailors (Richards). In the end, when the slaves are brought back to where they were intended to go and Babo is hung for his actions, Cereno decides he is going stay at a monastery where the original slave master Alexandro Aranda was buried.
Here he intended to live out the rest of his life, but after only a few months, he dies. Each of the leaders, Cereno, Aranda, and Babo, each of them was a follower to one of the three, making the term “Follow your leader” the biggest element of irony in the entire story (May). Benito Cereno allows the reader to see blacks and whites in a way opposite to what was normally seen in the time period that it was written in. In the story a slave overthrows the captain and slave master aboard a Spanish slave boat and takes the white sailors as their own slaves.
Their overthrowing and enslaving of the whites is understandable as it is what they did to them, but is it right? It seems that given the opportunity, both races take the advantage of a weaker party and enslave them, some as revenge in the case of the blacks and some with no reason in the case of the whites. In the end Babo and his men attempt to kill Delano and his sailors, this shows us the brutal side we do not normally see in blacks that is more commonly seen in whites, such as enslaving the Africans and even going further back when they forced the Native Americans out of their land.
Cite this Irony and Racial Uniqueness in Benito Cereno
Irony and Racial Uniqueness in Benito Cereno. (2016, Sep 17). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/irony-and-racial-uniqueness-in-benito-cereno/