Benito Cereno

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Subjectivity in History as an Official Written Record

Herman Melville in his novella Benito Cereno, presents history as a gray and subjective past which cannot be told in an official record. Following Captain Amasa Delano’s encounter with a Spanish merchant ship, the San Dominick, in 1799, the reader has a look through Captain Delano’s eyes at the questionable events taking place onboard. Captain Delano at the end discovers the Spanish ship has been taken over by the slaves who killed nearly all the Spanish crew and who, holding the ship's captain Benito Cereno hostage, try to hide their revolt from Amasa Delano. After the truth about the San Dominick is revealed and the slave's revolt is overpowered, the remaining of the novella contains a court deposition given by the captain of the Spanish ship, Benito Cereno. Herman Melville includes this deposition in his novella to "shed light on the preceding narrative and reveal the true history of the San Dominick's voyage". (92) This deposition tries to act as an absolute history of the events on the San Dominick; however, a closer look at "Benito Cereno" gives way to the problem of how much about the “official record” is true. One obvious sweep of the deposition and other legal fragments reveals that these official records come from one voice--the oppressors. There are no slave accounts, there are only the deposition of Benito Cereno and the story of Captain Amasa Delano. Undeniably, the official "history" that Melville provided is from one perspective, which makes even what is considered to be an official account rather subjective. The fact that Cereno’s account is considered to be the most accurate account without even hearing from the slaves aboard the ship demonstrates how subjectivity goes into history as an official written record of the past. By reading Melville's novella, "Benito Cereno", which is laden with grayness towards slavery, we in the present can interpret our own findings on history without the guidance of subjective official records.

The following is a link to a comparison between Herman Melville's Benito Cereno and the real event:


Written With No Clear Meaning

Slaves boarding a ship

Melville ends his story with no answer as to whether slavery is acceptable or not. This unclear ending leads into the area of "grayness" on how we, as the readers, are left alone to interpret Melville's novella on the issue of slavery. Without clear guidance or meaning, the novella can be read as either one being 'pro-slavery' or as an abstract on how slavery was unjust in its time. As the story is narrated through Delano's eyes, our thoughts are channeled into believing that the slaves are the antagonists of the ship, wielding and clanking axes, acting awkwardly—not like a typical slave would have at the time; while the captive Spanish are the victims as we see in the story and hear from Cereno's account that most of them were murdered during the revolt. The manner in which this story is portrayed seems almost as if to be left open to the interpretation of the reader; consequently, either expressing feelings of sympathy for the once 'captors' (the Spanish crew) over the true 'captives' (the slaves). Given the generation we live in now, and the generally more accepted idea that slavery was and is unjust, most people would interpret this novel as a reminder in that horrible atrocities of our past should never be forgotten, no matter how unspeakable. This is in contrast to the time when Melville wrote his story in 1856. The reader must remember that Melville wrote his novella before the “Emancipation Proclamation” and before the Civil War. This is important in that slavery was still a huge issue that divided the United States between the Confederate States and the Union. In order for these events to never occur again in future generations, as an ongoing step, "slavery" as a keyword should be explored in order to further enhance the understanding of how to avoid these events in the times to come.

Although Melville leaves as to whether his book was pro-slavery or anti-slavery up to interpretation, as "gray", he does leave a stance that that isn't so foggy. The belief that the slaves were indeed human and capable of human cunning, and not closer to docile, domesticated animals was a stance Melville takes firmly through the progression of the story.

From this a sort of contrary claim can emerge from the side who believes that Benito Cereno was meant to be an anti-slavery work, for it puts the slave in a human light. "Human" in a general sense can be a positive which lends credence to those who believe the work is anti-slavery. But looking at the details of which human traits are emphasized (the "inhumane" parts of a human) can also be viewed as negative, which again leaves an ambiguous ending which allows the reader to put up their own judgment as to whether the text was pro-slavery or anti-slavery.

Shadows and Half Truths

The Real Truth is Hidden

In his keyword essay “Slavery,” Walter Johnson explores the many meanings of the word and how these meanings have evolved. He explains that “we approach the history of slavery by way of whispers and shadows, where truth has often been hidden in half truth in order to be saved away for the future” (Johnson 221). Benito Cereno starts off being nothing but shadows and half truth as Melville paints the story in grayness and equivocacy. This epitomizes Johnson’s point that the real truth is hidden in shadows in order to “be saved away for the future”. Even though what we see through Delano’s eyes is confusing and unclear, his narrative is mostly objective - Delano tells us exactly what he witnesses aboard the San Dominick, excluding any strong opinions of his own, allowing us to formulate and evaluate our own interpretations of what is happening. The uncertainty and confusion of the story are vital for the reader to be able to make accurate realizations about the true emotions and spirits of the characters and see the slaves for who they really are. The “whispers and shadows,” are all we can hope for and all we really need to learn the true history of slavery.

Captian Amasa Delano

What makes the “whispers and shadows” even clearer is the fact that Benito Cereno is a non-realistic fiction in which realistic events and realistic characters come together in fantastic and outlandish ways. The extraordinary interactions between the characters and the extraordinary events that take place in the story allow us to see even clearer the true complexion and emotions of the characters. Toni Morrison addresses these very ideas in “Romancing the Shadow,” explaining that “it has been suggested that romance is an evasion of history…but [she is] more persuaded by arguments that find in it the head-on encounter with very real, pressing historical forces and the contradictions inherent in them as they came to be experienced by writers” (Morrison 36). Benito Cereno is a romance in which there are many “head-on” encounters that explore the true anxiety of the slavery issue. When Babo is shaving the shaking Captain Delano, using the flag of Spain as an apron, we have a “head-on encounter” that dissects the relationship between master and slave, showing the emotions on both sides – Babo’s smug power and control, and Cereno’s uncontrollable fear and anxiety. The most important “head-on encounter” is when Benito Cereno jumps into Delano’s boat, followed by the dagger-yielding Babo, showing the desperation of the slave (Cereno) and the viciousness and violence of the slave-master (Babo), after their roles have been switched. Through Cereno’s fear and desperation, we see how the slaves really felt and how horrible their lives were in constant persecution. And through Babo’s unrelenting and violent control over Cereno, we see how inhumane the master’s treatment of his slaves can be.

File:440px-Slave ship diagram.jpg
Diagram of a slave ship from the Atlantic slave trade.

However, there is a contrary claim to this view. By writing in a “gray” area, the reader can take up a different interpretation. If the reader doesn’t believe that slavery is, or ever was, a good institution, the slaves’ actions are going to be viewed as a revolution, not a revolt. The act of viewing their actions as a revolution shows that the slaves are no longer animal or property; they are human. Unlike the other view where the slaves are savages, they know that what is being done to them is unjust, they are going to fight for their freedom, and will thusly exhibit the cunning of a human in order to accomplish their goals.


Falseness in Official Records

At the end, Melville presents Benito Cereno’s deposition that gives us the “real” truth; a tendentious truth that erases all the “whispers and shadows” that were important in uncovering what really happened. The deposition demonstrates how past events are recorded in history and how the majority of the history of slavery comes to us today; the oppressors decided what the “true history” would be by disallowing the oppressed to have any voice at all in the official documentation, and recording only their own subjective accounts of what happened in order to justify the institution of slavery and solidify their reputations as heroes in the name of progress. The end of Benito Cereno is just one example of this ideology and proves that we cannot and should not look at the written historical record as an absolute truth. Instead we can search for the truth in the “whispers and shadows” of the fantastic characters and outlandish events in this confusing story. Ultimately, “whispers and shadows,” are all we can hope for and is the closest way in which we can grasp the true history of slavery. Benito Cereno and other non-realistic fiction from the time makes these “whispers and shadows” even clearer.