In Benito Cereno, Melville argues that authority based on hierarchy and order alone will never lead to a stable society. As a respected ship captain, Amasa Delano believes that maintaining discipline should be any leader’s primary concern. However, Delano does not realize that, on the San Dominick and, more generally, in the American slave society he finds himself in, maintaining the status quo involves sustaining a fragile system of oppression in which a large part of the population is silenced. By contrast, Don Benito Cereno, who has interacted directly with the ringleader of the slave rebellion, Babo, begins to understand that sustainable leadership and authority should not depend on policing alone, but should allow all members of society to express themselves. Otherwise, Melville suggests, the pre-existing hierarchy remains fragile and illegitimate.
Delano understands good leadership as a system capable of enforcing order. Although Delano does not necessarily believe in harsh discipline and cruelty, he trusts that hierarchy is a guarantor of order. As a result, his interest in democracy and equality is an illusion. When he has to distribute water to the people on the ship, “with republican impartiality as to this republican element […] [he served] the oldest white no better than the youngest black […]. But the soft bread, sugar, and bottled cider, Captain Delano would have given the white sailors alone, and in chief Don Benito [...].” Despite Delano’s professed “republican” intentions, he is clearly anti-democratic, since he wants to give white passengers the more luxurious goods. He believes that democracy is not as important as traditional, racial forms of authority.
In accordance with his respect for hierarchy, Delano believes that policing—not greater equality—is the key to order. On the San Dominick, “Some prominent breaches not only of discipline but of decency were observed. These Captain Delano could not but ascribe, in the main, to the absence of those subordinate deck-officers to whom, along with higher duties, is entrusted what may be styled the police department of a populous ship.” Delano is less interested in addressing the true problems at the root of the ship’s misery than in correcting affronts to good manners and discipline. His views are short-sighted, focused on short-term problems rather than the underlying frustration and discontent on the ship.
At odds with Delano’s narrow views about order and discipline, Melville suggests that following traditional authority leads not to stability but to death. The phrase “Follow your leader” appears on various occasions in the novella. The sentence is written on the side of the San Dominick and is used by various characters over the course of the narrative. After Babo places Alexandro Aranda’s skeleton as the figure-head, the symbolic guide of the ship, he warns the Spaniards on the ship not to misbehave, threatening that otherwise they will “follow their leader”—by which he means that they will share Aranda’s brutal fate. Later, Benito Cereno dies three months after Babo, leading Melville to note that Cereno thus “did, indeed, follow his leader.” In both cases, the idea of following one’s leader means dying—not obeying a grand purpose. The succession of deaths in the story—Aranda’s, Babo’s, Cereno’s—suggests that a government based on hierarchy and force alone can lead to no productive outcome, since it can always be toppled by those who suffer from it.
Therefore, instead of being strictly hierarchical, Melville suggests that society should strive for the inclusion of all its members, not their submission by force. Melville suggests that hierarchical leadership and authority is not only deadly, but also unreliable. Upon entering the San Dominick, Delano believes that “The best account would, doubtless, be given by the captain.” Delano’s understanding of who is the “captain” is, of course, mistaken, since Babo and the other black slaves are secretly in charge of the ship. In fact, Babo might indeed be capable of giving a compelling account of what has happened on the ship—one that challenges Delano’s basic hierarchical assumptions and forces him to address the issue of slavery—but Babo is never given the chance to express himself. On the ship, Babo’s words cannot be trusted since he is merely playing a part. Then, once Babo is recaptured, he refuses to speak: “Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words.” Babo’s unwillingness to speak reveals his powerlessness, but also highlights his unwillingness to engage with a system whose main purpose is to oppress black people like him, not to listen to them. In a system that does not allow him to speak, Babo’s only hope for self-expression is performing “deeds” of violence, in the effort to destroy the system that has trapped him.
In this political and economic context, black and white people have inherently conflicting interests, as white people’s economic prosperity depends on the slave labor of black people, and black people’s liberty depends on the elimination of the white people who enslave them. Through Babo’s silence, Melville suggests that no authority based on such a state of affairs can ever be fully legitimate, since it depends on the de-legitimizing and silencing of the other side. It is only once people like Babo are given the right to speak for themselves that a stable system of government will be able to emerge—one in which all members of society feel included and have a stake in building a productive society, not destroying it. Democracy involving all members of society, Melville’s narrative suggests, might be the only guarantee of peace and stability.
Leadership and Authority ThemeTracker
Leadership and Authority Quotes in Benito Cereno
At last, puzzled to comprehend the meaning of such a knot, Captain Delano addressed the knotter:—
“What are you knotting there, my man?”
“The knot,” was the brief reply, without looking up.
“So it seems; but what is it for?”
“For some one else to undo,” muttered back the old man, plying his fingers harder than ever, the knot being now nearly completed.
While Captain Delano stood watching him, suddenly the old man threw the knot towards him, saying in broken English,—the first heard in the ship,—something to this effect—“Undo it, cut it, quick.”
“The castle and the lion,” exclaimed Captain Delano—“why Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,” he added with a smile, “but”—turning towards the black,—“it’s all one, I suppose, so the colors be gay;” which playful remark did not fail some- what to tickle the negro.
If the Deposition have served as the key to fit into the lock of the complications which precede it, then, as a vault whose door has been flung back, the San Dominick’s hull lies open to-day.
Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew’s church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda; and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.