While Amasa Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels presents the rebellion of slaves aboard the Tryal as a string of events, Melville’s tale spotlights the often inconsistent nature of the master-slave relationship between Babo and Cereno, and more broadly, between the slaves and the Spaniards. In doing so, Melville upsets 19th century cultural expectations of black aptitude by attributing the success of the slave rebellion not to brute force, but to the slaves’ capacity for emotional intelligence in the form of psychological manipulation.
Upon first glance, Melville’s addition of the shaving scene between Cereno and Babo doesn’t appear sinister or out of the ordinary. Babo, the seemingly good-natured servant of Cereno, reminds his master of his daily shave and tends to him with the utmost precision. However, once the reader becomes aware of the slave rebellion that has transpired aboard the San Dominick, details that initially appear unconnected begin to align, forming a much more chilling picture of Babo and Cereno’s power dynamic. For example, just as Babo prepares to bring the razor’s blade to Cereno’s skin, he abruptly stops, suspends the razor in mid air, and spreads “bubbling suds on the Spaniard’s lank neck.” From Delano’s perspective, Babo does this to ensure that the Spaniard will not be nicked by the razor’s blade. From Cereno’s perspective,...
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...Rather than focusing on the tangible aspects of the Tryal rebellion, as Delano does in his account, Melville highlights the control that the slaves exerted on the Spaniards and its psychological implications. Melville’s addition of the shaving scene coupled with the narrative’s reveal of the slave rebellion at the end rather than the beginning, address how his contemporary audience misinterprets the power dynamic between the slaves and the Spaniards aboard the ship. Melville’s alterations signal to the reader, that the threat of harm, when wielded properly, becomes more potent than the act described. In depicting Babo with the cognitive capacity to understand and exploit the psychological facets of fear, Melville challenges historically impressed perceptions of black intelligence and invites his audience to reconsider other facets of slavery they may misunderstand.
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