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Benito Cereno Analysis

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Walk down the streets of New York on a misty, Monday morning in the early 1850’s and pick any white man out at random. If he had read Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, he would probably identify physical force as the biggest determinant of success of the slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick. He’d likely also perceive slaves to be primitive and unintelligent. He’d be wrong.
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
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In the original account, Delano observes Cereno “frightened at his own shadow” because he’s been “effectually conquered and his spirits broken.” This implies that Cereno suffers from some form of trauma attributed to the general state of affairs that he suffered through, but does not provide a direct link to the role Babo played in Cereno’s trauma. In Melville’s tale, it is “The Negro” that has “cast such a shadow upon [Cereno].” Whereas “frighten” connotes fear and anxiety, “cast” suggests that Cereno, like a fish caught in a net, was held captive to emotions forced or “cast” upon him from an external source. Babo’s manipulation of Cereno compels Cereno to revisit the foundations of slavery that rest upon white superiority as justification for black enslavement. In demonstrating that blacks are equally as capable and intelligent as their white counterparts, Babo topples the pillar of white superiority, impelling Cereno to reflect upon the morality of slavery. Unable to reconcile the pro-slavery acts that he has already committed with the newfound realization of slavery’s inhumanity, Cereno falls into a silent depression. His silence reveals the wounds his skin conceals. Thus, Babo’s mind is the agent, whom Delano originally leaves ambiguous, responsible for “effectually conquer[ing]”