I came to read Benito Cereno as part of an online course. What a strange text! Was anybody else reminded of an episode of Star Trek as they read this novella? You know the one where the Starship Enterprise encounters a drifting space freighter hulk at the edge of a remote galaxy and then finds some people on it who are not quite what they seem so Spock has to zap them in the end. And, then off the crew go to the next adventure!
Capt Delano and Capt Kirk are equally bad judges of alien character. Delano totally misjudges the situation on the San Dominick because he has no understanding of black people. He is a racist rather like the man in the pub who admires black singers and dancers but hates his neighbours!
Delano sees the black people on the boat in terms of otherness. He takes to them as one might take to a large black dog, talks about Cereno’s sheep, the negresses sprawled out like deer with their fauns and, like the man in the pub, notes their love of rhythm. In all of these contacts, he likes to think the best of them as his jolly fun loving inferiors.
This completely blinds him to what is really quite an obvious truth that this is a mutiny. He has literally to be hit over the head with the truth before it goes in. When it does, true to form, he knows what to do. So, the mutineers get appropriately punished.
Along the way, he not only misses the signs but also the symbols. The knot, the key and the sextant as well as, I’m sorry to say, the cymbals (an appalling Melville pun) mean that he doesn’t just miss what is in front of his face but a whole set of other significant things as well. It is also worth noticing that he thinks Cereno is also a bit of a rum sort, overly self-important with his stuffed scabbard and strutting about without being a leader. He can be racist towards anyone vaguely Spanish as well!
The objects of his racism, the Negro cargo, probably ought to be seen as simply fighting for their lives and adopting whatever ploys will help them to survive and reach a place where they will not be enslaved. Mutiny looks like about the only strategy open to them and they almost get away with it because Babo and the ringleaders are shrewd, intelligent, determined and calculating – clever enough to know that Delano is stupid enough not to notice.
Unfortunately, as we learn from the tripartite structure of the novella, the mutiny comes to nothing and even Cereno comes to a bad end. Delano, like Capt Kirk, sails on to the next adventure.
All of this makes for a complex story. In an emerging nation state, discussing slavery as a context for civil war it raises a series of issues. Sometimes, it has been hard to decouple the context so people ask the question of where Melville stands in all of this. Is he suggesting that people who think slavery should be ended simply have a romantic or superficial view of the black man? Is he hinting that savagery is always going to be part of black culture? Or, is he cautioning his readers against preconceptions?
Who knows? And, where would this text be without the final section which clarifies what has gone before? Would we read it differently? I think we might.