Herman Melville was born in New York in 1819 so he grew up in a time where slavery was still common and accepted, but in an area in which blacks were treated with much more respect than they were in the south. His father's relatives could be traced back to a man who was a part of the Boston Tea Party and both his mother and father had relatives who fought with the union in the Revolutionary war (Johnson). Melville had many jobs growing up, including teaching, being a bank clerk, and sailing on a whaling ship, which is what jump started his writing career (Johnson). Many of the stories that Melville writes take place out on the sea and tend to be quite adventurous and unexpected, much like Benito Cereno. This style is more than likely inspired by the number of his jobs being on ships growing up. These factors greatly influence the way he writes, especially relating to race in Benito Cereno. Benito Cereno is about an American whaling ship that comes across a Spanish slave boat that has been secretly taken over by the slaves. The majority of the story involves the captain roaming the ship and being quite suspicious with what is going on, but he never catches on to anything, until the very end when it is revealed the slaves are actually in control of the ship.. This story has many reoccurring elements of racial grayness and foreshadowing that occurs thought the entire story. Herman Melville's unique take on race in Benito Cereno shows that both races, black and white, share a "gray area" of personalities that are rarely observed.
Benito Cereno begins near a harbor at the southern tip of Chili in 1799 on an American whaling ship, the Bachelors Delight. Amaso Delano, Captain of the Bachelors Delight, notices in the distance a ragged and beat-up looking ship, this ship is known as the San Dominick. Upon stepping foot on the ship he is immediately greeted both by white sailors and black slaves, including Captain Benito Cereno and his personal slave, Babo. The ship turns out to be a Spanish slave boat on its way to Callao that had been stranded due to some complications. They tell him that they encountered terrible storms and becasue of these storms, they have lost many men and a large portion of their supplies. Delano finds the cooperation of the blacks and whites aboard the ship slightly suspicious, but he comes to no conclusion of any sorts. He gifts Cereno and his men some of their supplies, but as he is preparing to leave, Cereno leaps overboard and Babo follows wielding a dagger. Shortly after this, the skeleton of the of the original slave master, Alexandro Aranda, is revealed on the San Dominick's figure head and the slaves aboard began attacking Delano and his men. Delano is able to cease the fighting and stop Babo from killing Cereno, here it is revealed that the slaves overthrew the crew, killed the slave master, and took control by placing Babo in power. When they saw the San Dominick in the beginning of the story, Babo allowed Cereno to be viewed as captain even though Babo was in charge all along and instructed the original crew to be quiet or face death (Byers). The main character, Captain Delano, is slow to realizing the true nature of what had become of the ship. He has a hard time believing that the slaves were at all bad people, so he cannot tie all the suspicion he is getting together to make any sense. Despite what how he views slaves and blacks in general, he still has Babo tried and hung for the atrocities he committed.
Benito Cereno shows us that both whites and blacks alike, despite what people of that time thought, were the same when it came down to the way we behaved socially. Both races could be brutal and malevolent towards the opposite race and at the same time they could be kind and loving to one another. No one in this story is good or bad, everyone has their faults at some point, some of which can be justified. This is what creates the gray in this story, everyone having something that puts...
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