Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno, based on a real-life event, follows Captain Amasa Delano’s discovery of a ship on which a slave revolt has taken place. Through Delano’s confused perspective, Melville shows that prejudice and racist assumptions about the world can blind people to reality. On the San Dominick, a Spanish slave ship, Delano meets the captain, Don Benito Cereno, a moody, cryptic character who is always accompanied by his faithful slave Babo. Although Delano notices mysterious events on the ship and does not fully believe Cereno’s account of the ship’s journey, it is only once Cereno tries to escape that Delano finally grasps the truth: the San Dominick has experienced a slave revolt and the black slaves—not Cereno—are actually in charge. Delano’s shock at uncovering this state of affairs reveals that, until then, his automatic adherence to racial hierarchy has kept him from conceiving of a slave rebellion. Through Delano’s experience, Melville aims to show that, more than learning from reality, people often impose on reality their pre-existing biases, thus remaining blind to dynamics that do not conform to their convictions.
From the beginning of the novella, readers gain access to Amasa Delano’s thoughts. Although Delano is an efficient ship captain, it soon appears that he is not as perceptive as he believes himself to be. Instead of being a detached, rational observer, Delano is prone to error and prejudice.
Delano’s point of view is limited because he lacks perceptive skills. The narrator calls Delano “a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable […] [to attribute] malign evil in man.” While this initially portrays Delano in a seemingly positive light, showing him as a generous, trustful human being, the narrator proceeds to imply that, instead of being a positive trait, this quality is in fact a defect, making Delano more susceptible to being fooled: “Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies […] more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” The narrator thus signals to attentive readers that Delano might not be as reliable as he seems, since Delano is blind to “what humanity is capable”—evil and harm—and might therefore not be as smart as he thinks. The narrator criticizes Delano for his naivety but does not condemn him entirely. Rather, he encourages readers to make up their own mind about the character as the story evolves.
In addition to being naïve, Delano harbors racist beliefs. He considers white people “the shrewder race” and sees black people as unsophisticated beings with “a limited mind.” When Delano sees how efficiently Babo behaves, he concludes that all black people are naturally compliant: “There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person.” Delano’s generalizations about race lead him to trust that black people are meant to be inferior to white ones and, therefore, that they are ideal slaves. His understanding of people’s behaviors on the ship is therefore not neutral but determined by racism.
What Delano does not realize is that, instead of stemming from an objective observation of reality, his racist beliefs condition what he is able to perceive. When Delano finally discovers that the situation on Cereno’s ship is the exact opposite of what he thought—and that black people, not white Spaniards, are in power—it becomes clear that Delano’s assumptions about race and authority have completely blinded him to reality. On the ship, Delano believed that Babo and his companions’ behavior was genuine because it conformed to traditional stereotypes about black slaves—stereotypes that Delano was receptive to, since they reflected his own beliefs about black people’s passivity and meekness. It is only once Delano discovers that Babo has led a slave insurrection and is only pretending to be a docile slave that “the scales dropped from his eyes.” Melville thus demonstrates that Delano’s racist beliefs never derived from an astute observation of reality, but from Delano’s eagerness to believe in stereotypes. On Cereno’s ship, ignoring his suspicions and believing in Babo’s pretense, Delano only saw what he wanted to see: a world in which white people are naturally justified in ruling over black people.
Through Delano’s experience, Melville highlights the dangerous effect of racial bias. Melville discredits Delano’s racist views by showing that they do not mirror reality. Indeed, through the slaves’ rebellion, Melville proves that Africans are not intellectually inferior to white people and that they do not passively accept their status as slaves. Rather, these African slaves have proven intelligent, strategic, and self-assured in organizing a rebellion against the Spaniards. In this way, Melville proves that Delano’s attitude, which denies black people’s full humanity and dignity, is not only morally offensive, but also runs counter to truth. Believing in the inferiority and superiority of certain “races” does not reflect reality. Rather, it merely serves to justify the oppression of a given people.
Delano’s experience thus highlights the pernicious effects of human bias. Melville shows that people often observe the world to find confirmation for their beliefs and attitudes, rather than to challenge them through true understanding. Readers are thus invited to critique Delano’s naïve and racist perspective—and, in so doing, to challenge their own unconscious biases, examining the ways in which their own minds might also be limited by pre-existing assumptions about the world.
Racism and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Racism and Prejudice Quotes in Benito Cereno
Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.
To think that, under the aspect of infantile weakness, the most savage energies might be couched—those velvets of the Spaniard but the silky paw to his fangs.
All this is very queer now, thought Captain Delano, with a qualmish sort of emotion; but as one feeling incipient sea-sickness, he strove, by ignoring the symptoms, to get rid of the malady.
Am I to be murdered here at the ends of the earth, on board a haunted pirate-ship by a horrible Spaniard?—Too nonsensical to think of! Who would murder Amasa Delano? His conscience is clean.
There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers […]. There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humor. Not the mere grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.
At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.
“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.
That moment, across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day, as well as the entire past voyage of the San Dominick. He smote Babo’s hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. With infinite pity he withdrew his hold from Don Benito. Not Captain Delano, but Don Benito, the black, in leaping into the boat, had intended to stab.
Both the black’s hands were held, as, glancing up towards the San Dominick, Captain Delano, now with the scales dropped from his eyes, saw the negroes, not in misrule, not in tumult, not as if frantically concerned for Don Benito, but with mask torn away, flourishing hatchets and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt.
“You are saved,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”