|"An Attack on a Galleon"|
Artist: Howard Pyle (1905)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Herman Melville’s story Benito Cereno chronicles the American Captain Delano’s experience with the Spaniard cargo vessel, the San Dominick. Upon first boarding the vessel, Delano is surprised to see black slaves roaming the ship freely. He looks around for a captain, or any white man in authority, and he soon comes upon the Spaniard, Benito Cereno. Benito appears sickly, as his coughing fits continually interrupt his words. Constantly at Benito’s side is his black servant, Babo.
To Delano’s eyes, Babo is the perfect servant. He is sweet, loyal, and Delano says of Babo to Benito, “I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him,” (Melville 3). Though there is plenty of strange activity on the boat that puts Delano off his guard (slaves sharpening hatchets, a black child’s violence that goes unpunished after he strikes a Spanish boy and draws blood), Delano lets his good nature convince him that everything is orderly enough on the San Dominick. What Delano is unaware of is the mutiny aboard the ship; the Africans are in charge of the Spaniards, a thought that Delano seems too naïve to comprehend. The mutineers have disguised their actions so as to stake a claim on Delano’s boat.
Benito Cereno’s view of blacks is partly an antidote to racial stereotypes, while at the same time, it presents another stereotype. African-Americans as obedient, jovial, and ignorant. It took almost the entire story for Delano to realize that the slaves were capable of a great deal more than he had assumed possible for black men and women. Not only had the slaves murdered their owner (Benito’s friend Alexandro Aranda), but they had the intelligence to arrange the duplicitous meeting between “Captain” Benito and Captain Delano, driving the circumstances to their advantage.
What I found to be another stereotype in the story was the fact that the slaves were the antagonist. In plenty of stories, the black man is seen as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, and usually in parallel to their dark skin. I did not like that the slaves were the antagonist, even though the story hinted at this possibility more than once (unbeknownst to the trusting Delano). An interesting note was the comparison of the savagery between the slaves and the white authorities: the slaves took Aranda’s body and made of it a sort of display, like a warning on the prow of the ship (a skeleton). And yes, that seems barbaric and disgusting, but when Babo is tried and hanged, his head is put on a pike for display in the city of Lima, another warning of a different sort, but not really different at all. Perhaps a point Melville was trying to convince the reader of is that, despite race, men are very alike in terms of behavior, as both races in the novel are capable of great violence and great intelligence.