Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 9: “The following extracts…” through “Doctor Rozas” (pp. 208-223)
This section of the text presents lengthy excerpts from Cereno’s deposition, given in Peru. The narrator prefaces the testimony with the observation that, while the tribunal that heard it was at the time reluctant to give credence to everything Cereno said, they were later convinced, by the successive testimonies of others, that Cereno told the truth; and they rendered their judgments accordingly.
The extracts recapitulate the journey of the San Dominick prior to the point at which Captain Delano joined it. The ship set sail from Valparaiso, bound for Callao, carrying a crew of 36 and 160 black slaves belonging to Don Alexandro Aranda. The slaves were allowed to sleep unfettered on the deck on Aranda’s vouching for their good behavior. A week into the journey, however, the slaves, led by Babo and Atufal his assistant, rebelled, killing many of the Spaniards aboard. Babo ordered the ship to sail for Senegal, where he and the other slaves might live free. When Cereno protested that the ship would need water for the journey, Babo agreed to a stop at the island of Santa Maria. As the journey continued, Babo ordered the execution of Don Aranda. Aranda’s skeleton was then made the new figurehead of the San Dominick, replacing the image of Christopher Columbus. Babo threatened Cereno, every day, with a similar fate of “following his leader” to death, unless he obeyed Babo’s commands. Cereno formally signed a document stating he would carry the slaves to Senegal.
For 73 days the San Dominick sailed, those aboard the ship suffering the loss of any capable navigator when the mate Raneds was killed, and enduring a lack of water and unfavorable weather. When the Bachelor’s Delight was spotted, Atufal and Babo had a falling out: Atufal wanted to sail away, while Babo did not. Babo’s will prevailed, and he devised and organized the elaborate scheme in which those aboard the San Dominick took part—the Spaniards, of course, unwillingly, particularly Cereno, whom Babo cowed into compliance by a continuation of threats against him. Babo appointed the six Ashantees to sharpen the hatchets should they be needed, and the four elderly blacks to maintain order over the other blacks on deck. He also arranged the ruse involving Atufal in chains, “though in a moment the chains could be dropped.”
As the day of Captain Delano’s visit to the San Dominick drew to its close, Babo, in secret consultation with Cereno, informed the Spaniard of his intention to take Delano’s ship as well. He even went so far as to promise Cereno that he “would be captain of two ships, instead of one.” Cereno, of course, chose to make his escape as Delano was leaving, with the results we have read in the previous section of the novel.
Melville scholar James Miller states, “The matter-of-fact legal style of the depositions [in this section of the text], contrasting severely with the preceding highly-dramatic style, shows Melville in perfect command of his technique: the mystery has aroused a curiosity which only the ‘facts’ of the testimony will satisfy” (Miller, p. 153).
And yet this section serves a more than pragmatic purpose. For instance, Cereno’s testimony furthers the characterization of Babo as a true villain, time and again. Even when the captain willingly submits himself to Babo’s rebellion in order to spare the lives of his sailors, for example, Babo has three men thrown overboard, alive and bound. Furthermore, Babo insists upon Senegal as a destination, even though Cereno warns him of the dangers that will be involved in rounding Cape Horn. Babo is said to have “intimated to [Cereno] several times that he would kill all the whites the very moment he should perceive any city, town, or settlement of any kind on the shores to which they should be carried” (p. 212). Babo determines to and does in fact kill Don Aranda, despite Cereno’s pleadings; furthermore, Babo conceived the idea of mounting the gentleman’s skeleton as the new figurehead of the vessel and a grim warning to the remaining Spaniards. Babo also orders that other Spanish sailors be thrown overboard, “although they made no resistance nor begged for anything else but mercy” (p. 214), and although one even dies with the prayers of the Mass on his lips as he sinks into the sea. Babo has all the San Dominick’s boats destroyed, so that none may leave.
The catalogue of Babo’s crimes continues after the deposition recounts Delano’s visit and Cereno’s escape: Babo is described with nautical metaphors as being “the helm and keel of the revolt” (p. 220) and is unambiguously presented as the true villain of the piece and responsible for every death, though he never killed anyone himself. Cereno’s deposition also, however, reveals the extent to which he believes that all the slaves aboard the San Dominick were set against him: he states that they all, “though not in the first place knowing the design of revolt, when it was accomplished, approved it” (p. 219); and he even states that the slave women “used their utmost influence to have [Cereno] made away with; that, in the various acts of murder, they sang songs and danced,” albeit not “gaily,” but in a melancholy way, to further inflame their men (p. 220). In short, Cereno’s testimony perfectly captures the menace and dread white people have long associated with black.
To be sure, Cereno was the victim of a revolt, and some fear of those who rebelled against him is understandable. On the other hand, of course, modern readers—and, most likely, many readers in Melville’s day, as well—would not forget as conveniently as do Cereno, Delano, and the Peruvian tribunal that the mutiny aboard the San Dominick was a mutiny of slaves against slave masters. Readers may not believe that “ends justify the means,” but the context of the institution of slavery surely casts these events in a light that Cereno and Delano do not recognize. And while it is dangerous practice for readers of a text to assume an unjustified attitude of superiority to the text as they approach it, readers can also note that many interpreters of Benito Cereno have seen it as an Abolitionist work. Granted, other scholars have disagreed; Sidney Kaplan, for instance, has stated that readings “that portray Melville as a ‘subtle abolitionist in Benito Cereno’ may be a construction of generous wish rather than hard fact” (Matthew Fisher, Studies in Short Fiction, Summer 1994; http:findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2455/is_n3_v31/ai_15801117).
Nevertheless, such an interpretation, while not inevitable, is certainly possible. Readers may well wonder how different the story would be had it been told from Babo’s point of view, rather than Delano’s! As Cereno himself unwittingly acknowledges in his deposition, Babo is motivated by the desire for freedom: “the Negro Babo… told [Cereno] that he had determined to kill his master, Don Alexandro Aranda… because he and his companions could not otherwise be sure of their liberty” (p. 212, emphasis added). How ironic that Delano, the representative of a young republic devoted to the securing of liberty, did not recognize this desire when he encountered it in Babo—he was blinded, as Cereno’s deposition puts it, by a “generosity and piety… incapable of sounding such wickedness” (p. 221). How sadly fitting, then, that in Melville’s text, the promise of the New World, represented in some ways by Christopher Columbus, is replaced with a decaying skeleton.