|Sterling A. Brown via BlackPast|
Benito Cereno (1855) is a masterpiece of mystery, suspense and terror. Captain Delano of the Bachelor's Delight, discovering a vessel in distress along the uninhabited coast of Chile, boards her to render aid. He is interested in the many Negroes he finds on the decks: “ like most men of a good blithe heart he took to Negroes not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs." He is mystified, however, when the gamesome Negroes flare up in momentary rage, and especially by their continual clashing their hatchets together. Only when Don Benito, in desperation, escapes to Delano's ship, does the real truth dawn.
There had been a revolt on board the San Dominick; the Negro sailors and the slaves had killed many of the whites, and had kept the others alive only for their skill as navigators in order to reach a Negro country. The mutineers and revolters are overcome in a bloody battle, carried to Lima, and executed. The contrast between the reputed gentleness of Negroes "that makes them the best body-servants in the world," and the fierceness with which they fight for freedom is forcibly driven home. Certain Negroes stand out: Babo who, resembling a "begging friar," engineered the revolt with great skill and is almost fiendish in his manner of breaking down Cereno's morale; Francesco, the mulatto barber; Don José, personal servant of a Spanish Don; and Atulfa [Atufal], an untamed African chieftain, all filled with hatred for whites. Melville graphically pictures the slave mothers, "equally ready to die for their infants or fight for them”; the four old men monotonously polishing their hatchets; and the murderous Ashantees. All bear witness to what Melville recognized as a spirit that it would take years of slavery to break.
Although opposed to slavery, Melville does not make Benito Cereno into an abolitionist tract; he is more concerned with a thrilling narrative and character portrayal. But although the mutineers are bloodthirsty and cruel, Melville does not make them into villains; they revolt as mankind has always revolted. Because Melville was unwilling to look upon men as “Isolatoes," wishing instead of discover the "common continent of man,” he comes nearer the truth in his scattered pictures of a few unusual Negroes than do the other authors of this period.
-- Sterling Allen Brown, The Negro in American Fiction (Washington, DC, 1937) pages 12-13."Brown's analysis of Benito Cereno is the best I have seen...." --Joseph Schiffman, Critical Problems in Melville's Benito Cereno, Modern Language Quarterly volume 11 issue 3 (September 1950) pages 317-324 at page 323, footnote 23.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "The Negro in American Fiction" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1937. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/f0a11c90-080b-0135-79ca-0d6aeeb931ad
|Sterling A. Brown on Melville|
The Negro in American Fiction page 11
|Sterling A. Brown on Moby-Dick and "Benito Cereno"|
The Negro in American Fiction page 12
|Sterling A. Brown on "Benito Cereno"|
The Negro in American Fiction page 13