I just finished reading Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. I read it a long time ago (about 8 years, I guess?) in my American Literature Survey course as an undergraduate. I remember liking it then. I don’t remember my other responses. I don’t remember what I thought about the portrayals of the mutinous Africans that turned on the Spaniards in order to be returned to their lands.
I do know how I felt this time, and that is confusion.
After reading Typee and Moby-Dick and the depictions of ethnicity therein, BC comes off as highly reductive. For, while Typee and the tale about the white whale are filled with primitivism and stereotypes and some troubling depictions, these novels also seem to be persistent in demonstrating that the narrator is, in some way, limited in his perceptions and understanding of these people.
In Benito Cereno Captain Delano, an American sealer captain, is clearly limited in what he is able to perceive. He judges all he encounters purely from the surface appearance, not able to think critically or see anything but what is in front of his face. He is a likable enough character, but also quite foolish in a good natured and well-meaning kind of way. So, I feel that the reader is supposed to understand that his perceptions and representations of the Africans are not to be believed or taken very seriously.
Yet, his naivety is the only viewpoint from which the reader is allowed to see. We do not get the words of Babo, or Atufal, two of the slaves that led the mutiny on board the Spanish ship. We hear the account of the mutiny from Benito Cereno, and see, toward the end, that he is greatly troubled by the event, yet, we also hear that the African women wanted to torture their owner, that they danced his death. The slaves were cruel, merciless, to their captors and planned to capture and murder the occupants of the American ship, The Bachelor’s Delight when given the chance.
So, this rather 2D portrayal of all involved makes me wonder what Melville’s goals were. The horrific tale strikes, well, horror, at the thought of slaves rising up in revolt. But it does little to argue for the humanity of Africans, or the wrongs of slavery. It seems to only focus on the consequences.
Does it rank among abolitionist texts? If so, it bends the genre in a way that is quite different from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and quite different from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (my next read. So happy, all of it).
It focuses on the horrors of slavery, yes, but in a way much different from the sentimental novels like UTC, and quite different from autobiographies of figures like Frederick Douglass or Linda Brent. These texts focus on the psyche and experiences of the slave. Melville’s text focuses only on the actions of the slave, and the (limited) mental processes of the American seacaptain, with brief glimpses into the mind of Benito. The goal also seems to be to invoke fear, rather than sympathy. I can hardly rank this as an abolitionist text, in the standard way, because of that. Yet, perhaps, in someway, being invited into the mind of an American that does not see anything wrong with the slave trade, and seeing how his simple mind misunderstands the entire situation, perhaps that is the point that Melville wanted to make. Perhaps, by showing only this limited and foolish view, the reader is supposed to rethink his or her own limited viewpoints on the subject. Perhaps fear is the ultimate emotion evoked by this novella, but perhaps it is also designed to invite introspection and reflection.