Reversing the Master and Slave Role in Benito Cereno

Better Essays
Reversing the Master and Slave Role in Benito Cereno

White men held within an inch of death or even more tortuous fates at the hands of black slave-mutineers, kept alive solely to navigate the blacks to freedom--is this concept something so preposterous that it isn't conceivable? It depends upon whose eyes the insurrection is viewed through.

In "Benito Cereno," Captain Delano's extreme naivete and desensitization towards slavery greatly affect his perceptions while aboard the San Dominick. Delano's racial stereotypes, views of master and slave relationships, and benevolent racism mask the true reality of what was occurring on board despite his constant uneasiness and skepticism. At a time when slave revolts were not unusual, the slave conditions aboard the San Dominick should have made more of an impact on Delano.

Upon first boarding the mysterious ship, Delano gave but a brief thought to the fact that the many blacks roamed freely under the control of very few Spaniards, a number which was so small, we later learn, because of scurvy, or so he was told. The ominous black men performing the task of polishing axes that they would make sound at opportune times, never were more than a passing observance. Also, the fact that there were so many of the slaves, all in relatively good health, not lacking anything but water, never provoked Delano to analyze further. Despite the fact that the San Dominick was not specifically a slave ship, but only a ship transporting one man's slaves, on the average slave ship the

conditions aboard ship were dreadful. The maximum number of slaves was jammed into the hull, chained to forestall revolts or suicides by drowning. Food, ventilation, light, and sanitatio...

... middle of paper ...

...ns it held. Melville creates a character who never sees the reality on board the ship in his many speculations, particularly because Delano sees the slaves as too ignorant as to be able to devise such a thing, when the grand irony is the he is too blind to see it. Melville reverses the master and slave roles and brings them before a very slavery-conscious audience to whom he leaves the interpretation open, but laden with subtle messages about the horrible institution of slavery.

Works Cited

Bennett, Lerone. "Black Resistance... Slavery in the U.S.". Before the Mayflower. 25 Sept. 97.

Melville, Herman. "Benito Cereno." The Piazza Tales. Northwestern University Press. 1996.

"The African Slave Trade." Slavery. 18 Sept. 97.
Get Access