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 6: “The calm was confirmed…” to “…signs of a breeze were visible” (pp. 180-191)
Reflecting on the four incidents that have thus far aroused his suspicion the most—the slave’s assault on the sailor with a knife; Cereno’s treatment of Atufal; the two slaves who trampled the sailor; and the slaves’ “cringing submission to their master”—Delano concludes that Cereno merely exemplifies the “odd” nature of his nation as a whole. His reflections are interrupted by the arrival of the Rover, the boat from Delano’s own ship. On their commander’s orders, Delano’s crew does not board the San Dominick, but they do transfer three casks of water and some food to the slave ship.
Delano begins to question Cereno further about the details of the San Dominick’s immediate past history, only to have the interrogation put to an end by Babo, who insists that the time for Cereno’s daily shave has arrived. The three repair to Cereno’s cabin beneath the poop deck, where Babo shaves Cereno, draping the Spanish flag over the captain as an apron. Cereno trembles through much of Babo’s ministrations; and when Delano confesses that he at one point had not been ready to grant Cereno’s story much credence, Cereno suddenly starts, causing Babo to nick him: “See, master,” Babo tells him, “you shook so—here’s Babo’s first blood.”
This section commences with yet another moment in which Delano could possibly grasp the truth of his situation, but is prevented from doing so by his own prejudices and limited imagination. Cereno and his shipmates are “strange” but “nothing more,” the American captain decides (p. 180). Readers learn that Delano’s racism is not limited to the question of skin color; it envelops entire nationalities: “[A]s a nation… these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it” (p. 181). Readers must determine whether the narrator recognizes the absurdity of Delano’s reasoning as he draws conclusions about a nation’s character from the very word for that nation in another language! (Guy Fawkes, to whom Delano alludes, was, of course, the most prominent conspirator in the 1605 “Gunpowder Plot” against King James I and Parliament.) Delano’s prejudice here serves the dual purpose of putting his mind at ease and reinforcing his own sense of superiority. When readers observe this dynamic at work, therefore, it may be one more piece of textual evidence that leads them to question whether Melville’s text itself is racist (as opposed to its protagonist, who clearly is).
Delano’s racism and prejudice are especially ironic given the fact that the narrative sets them against the backdrop of the American captain’s supposed commitment to egalitarianism. Delano seeks Cereno’s permission to distribute the water from the Rover “so that all [i.e.., black and white; slave and free] might share alike” (p. 181); and he in fact proceeds to serve “the oldest white no better than the youngest black, excepting, indeed, poor Don Benito, whose condition, if not rank, demanded an extra allowance” (p. 182)—thus affording Delano the chance to demonstrate compassion as well as “republican[ism]” (p. 182). And yet, when the distribution of the food arises, Delano “would have given [it to] the whites alone” (p. 183), an indication that is adherence to the ideal of equality only goes so far. Ironically, it is Don Benito, the representative of the “old world” who is at this moment “enslaved” (not Melville’s word) to the blacks aboard his vessel, who must insist to the American proponent of republicanism that “mouthfuls all around [be] given alike to whites and blacks” (p. 183). Delano, however, continues to appear self-deluded as he is “oblivious of any but benevolent thought” (p. 183). Again, readers may wonder how much of a statement Melville may be making about young America’s willful ignorance and unwarranted self-satisfaction as it makes its way among the nations of the “old world.”
The denigration of the “old world” continues in this section in Melville’s masterfully written description of the shave Babo administers to Cereno. The image of Cereno, sitting in a chair, with Babo’s razor at his neck and the Spanish flag draped over him, is certainly a striking one, and, as Delano in this instance accurately recognizes, it is an image that would denigrate and debase any nation’s pretenses of dignity or glory. It is also an image that proves somewhat difficult to interpret. On the one hand, it is hard to take it at anything but its surface value: as Delano suggests, it is a virtually treasonous statement about Spanish (and so European, and so “old world”) power and prestige. On the other hand, the fact that it is Babo, not Delano, who uses the flag thus could suggest that those who are enslaved can reduce any nation to such a humble position—not only Spain, but also, perhaps, Delano’s own America. The “good Captain Delano” now stands making light of the use to which Babo puts the Spanish flag; but perhaps the text contains a hint of warning that, unless America repent of its slaving ways, it, too, could become just as debased as has this representative “old world” nation of Spain. Readers might object to such a reading as motivated by racial fear—i.e., white anxiety about losing power to blacks—but the reading could also speak more to the inevitable fate of those who enslave others. It could be a moral rather than a racial warning.
But it is true that the image occurs in the midst of one of the most racially charged sections of Melville’s text. The narrator discourses at some length about the naturally subservient character of the Negro—a racist trope repeated in much thought and literature, not only of that age but, unfortunately, of many others, including our own. Not unlike the myth of the noble savage referenced earlier in this commentary, the myth of a naturally subservient race allows the “superiors” to feel good about themselves while being patronizing; note, for instance, how the text here praises Negroes for “smooth tact” and grace, and even suggests that their inferior status is evidence of divine blessing (“as though God had set the whole Negro [race] to some pleasant tune”) (p. 186). It is not clear from the text itself whether these words represent the narrator’s point of view or are merely direct glimpses into Delano’s mind, so either interpretation remains a possibility for readers. Certainly, it is such passages as this one that have fueled charges of racism against Benito Cereno, and which make the text as tantalizingly ambiguous as Delano finds the situation aboard the San Dominick to be.
Also undeniable is Melville’s employment of traditional associations of black and white, as he depicts Babo as “a Nubian sculptor finishing off a white statue head” (p. 191)—for, at this point in the story, in command of Cereno’s ship and those aboard her, Babo is indeed the “master” and Cereno his “slave.” Melville appears to be relying on the usual negative connotations of the color black and the positive ones of the color white to contribute to the general tone of apprehension and menace. Along with exposing the text’s possible racism, however, the scene further highlights Delano’s willful blindness to the truth of the situation: he admits to Cereno that “had almost any other gentleman told me such a story, I should have been half disposed to a little incredulity” (p. 189). Yet again, Delano has been on the verge of the truth, and has withdrawn, preferring instead the “pleasing” and “comforting” views to which he has been accustomed, views that would not admit of blacks mastering whites in any way. A further irony occurs when Babo nicks Cereno, claiming that it is “Babo’s first blood” (p. 189). As readers will learn, the shaving accident is by no means the “first blood” that has been drawn in the slave mutiny aboard the San Dominick.