It is always a puzzle to know what to assign for reading in this course. This year I chose Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, a wickedly devious story about a slave revolt on a Spanish ship off the coast of Chile in 1799. I was persuaded to do so by Chris Benfey, my colleague across the hall in Shattuck. Chris is a wise fellow, and when he makes a suggestion, I listen.
Cereno is about ships and the sea, and therefore qualifies for this course. But it is about much more, and most particularly the culture of non-inquiry that leads tourists to look upon these islands and never see what lies beneath. The Spanish largely passed them by – no gold. The French and British saw their potential and imported slaves, who frequently revolted. Their descendants – like the late Maurice Bishop of Grenada – continue to revolt in different ways. In previous centuries, the revolts were against a white planter class. Now they are more likely to be against the white-run hotel chains that create gated resorts to which they sell package deals, and thereby guaranteeing that few tourist dollars will be spent in local businesses. All that is left for the locals is to become chambermaids, and clean up, yet again, after the white foreigners. Melville would have understood this new form of colonization, backed on occasion by the U.S. navy and its marines.
In Benito Cereno, Melville’s American captain, Asa Delano, is refilling casks of fresh water behind a deserted island when the San Dominick comes into view, her sails in tatters. Being a good fellow, he visits the mystery ship to offer assistance. There he finds a largely black crew and a dispirited Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, closely attended by his faithful black servant, Babo. To Delano, the good-hearted Christian from Duxbury, Massachusetts, black Africans are like Newfoundland dogs, and he looks upon them as kindly as he would dogs. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that the good Captain is as dumb as a Newfoundland, and that the shrewdest men on the ship are the blacks. When Delano finally comprehends that the blacks have seized the ship in a bloody revolt, made possible by a naïve and kindly slaver owner, all he sees is the terrorism of dogs who have turned upon their masters.
Like most Americans of his time, Melville’s captain refuses to acknowledge the atrocities of slavery, for that would have required him to concede the rightness of their revolt. All Delano can see is the plight of his fellow, white, Christian captain, and the salvage award that will come if he recaptures the ship.
The only white to realize the awful truth is the troubled Spanish captain. Three months later, he dies in a monastery while Asa Delano sails home, serenely confident that he has done his Christian duty. Unlike Cereno, Delano still does not comprehend the enormity of the wrong he has done to the blacks. For all his republican values, he does not recognize that each of them had a right to freedom and that the only Christian thing to do was to aid their return to Africa, or at least stand neutral to their attempt, however impossible it might be.
Benito Cereno is a sly satire of the fugitive slave laws, as enforced by the Melville’s father-in-law, judge Lemuel Shaw, pillar of the Boston establishment Shaw was so enamored with the sanctity of law that he could not see the depravity in returning slaves to captivity. His counterparts today would be the state and local police officers who enforce the federal government’s efforts to deport illegal aliens, regardless of their circumstances.
But the novella could just as easily be a satire of how easily Americans accept what the U.S. military and CIA continue to do in the Caribbean, or in Afghanistan or Iraq. Like nineteenth century Yankees, we believe in liberty and national self-determination, but do not understand that these ideas – when we practice them – cannot be imposed upon people who, like the San Dominick’s slaves, don’t even share our language.
But Melville’s satire goes beyond that easy insight. Like his Puritan ancestors, Melville understands depravity. Years at sea exposed him to plenty of depravity, even among seamen of great courage. Melville shows us what happens to a good-hearted slave owner who gives the oppressed men and women he owns a chance for freedom. They repay his benevolence by flaying him alive and then hanging his skeleton below the bowsprit. Melville could have told the current captain of our ship of state a thing or two about bombing Iraq for ten years and then expecting its Muslim residents to welcome our Christian army as it grinds into Baghdad in tanks.
But Melville also could have warned Maurice Bishop of the dangers of carrying off a left-wing coup in Grenada and then not protecting himself against a revolt by fellow revolutionaries. Liberty, equality, and justice are grand ideals, but their survival depends, ironically, on the disciplined exercise of power.