What constitutes violence? When is it acceptable to use it? Are there conditions in which violence is justified and others in which it is not? Melville examines these issues in Benito Cereno, focusing on the topic of slavery. Although slavery is legal in the world of the novella, it involves the total dehumanization of its victims, who are treated as objects of trade. Babo’s slave revolt on the San Dominick can be justified from this perspective, since Babo simply wishes to free himself from the Spanish slave-owners such as Don Benito Cereno and Alexandro Aranda who have oppressed him for so long. However, Babo and his companions soon take part in acts of terrifying brutality in order to assert their domination over their former masters. As a result, paradoxically, in the slaves’ fight to regain control over their lives, they ultimately reproduce the very cruelty they rejected as slaves. This leads Melville to suggest that violence is cruel and inhuman whether it takes place in a legal setting (as in the case of slavery) or whether it is justified from the perspective of human dignity (as in a slave revolt). By depicting cycles of violence, Melville shows that slavery breeds violence in both the master and the slave, who are tied together in a toxic relationship of domination. In a prophetic manner, a few years before the American Civil War, Melville predicts that the very nature of slavery makes violence inevitable.
Although slavery is legal in the world of Benito Cereno, it is inherently cruel and dehumanizing, even when it does not involve the direct use of violence. Captain Amasa Delano knows that relationships between masters and slaves can involve violence. After Babo shaves Cereno, accidentally cutting his cheek, Babo pretends that Cereno has hit him in retribution. Shocked by Cereno’s behavior, Delano laments the violence that slavery can breed: “was it to wreak in private his Spanish spite against this poor friend of his, that Don Benito, by his sullen manner, impelled me to withdraw? Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man.—Poor fellow!” Delano recognizes that being a slave-master can be cruel, as it might involve using violent behavior as punishment.
However, Delano does not understand that slavery is inherently violent. When he notices how intelligent and caring Babo is, he says: “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him.” Although Delano means this as a compliment to Babo, his assessment that Babo is a “friend,” not a slave, denies the oppressive reality of slavery itself, in which Babo does not choose to be kind to Cereno (as a friend might) but is forced to. His romantic view of Babo and Cereno’s relationship thus denies the existence of violent power dynamics that deprive Babo of free will. In fact, Delano is not opposed to slavery. After noticing how loyal and efficient Babo is, Delano offers to buy him. This suggests that, like anyone involved in the slave trade, Delano sees black people as commercial goods, not as human beings worthy of dignity and agency. In this way, he dehumanizes them, accepting that their fate is bound with their master’s good will.
Babo’s rebellion on the ship highlights the slaves’ desire for basic freedom and humanity. However, even though the slaves might be justified in revolting, the violence they take part in soon replicates the cruelty that they have been victim of. Melville thus suggests that, if slavery corrupts slave-owners, turning them into brutal tyrants, it also corrupts slaves, making them capable of brutal acts of punishment and revenge. In this way, Melville denounces violence in all its forms, whether spontaneous or state-sanctioned.
After the slaves revolt on the San Dominick, they take part in brutal deeds. For example, they throw Spanish sailors to the sea, where the men are bound to drown and be eaten by sharks. The act that Cereno finds most shocking is Babo’s treatment of Cereno’s childhood friend, Alexandro Aranda. Babo kills Aranda then cleans his skeleton in a mysterious way (which Cereno does not want to discuss and might involve cannibalism) before placing it on the figure-head of the ship. The violence Babo and his companions have experienced as slaves makes them unrepentant about using it against their former masters.
The slaves’ actions are undoubtedly cruel, but also serve practical purposes. As the new leader of the ship, Babo wants to keep the Spaniards from revolting and regaining power. He hopes that Aranda’s publicly displayed skeleton will scare the Spaniards into submission and remind them that they are no longer in charge. This scene mirrors what happens to Babo at the end of the novella: after being captured and undergoing a trial, Babo is publicly executed, his head displayed on a public square for everyone to see. By establishing a parallel between Aranda’s illegal murder and Babo’s legal execution, Melville shows that neither act is less brutal than the other. Rather, such forms of violence are savage and morally unacceptable, as their only goal is to inspire terror and submission in others.
Through these examples, Melville aims to show that slavery corrupts the entire society, as it turns everyone—masters and slaves alike—into potential oppressors. Melville’s goal is to denounce the destructive nature of slavery. In a violent system of oppression, in which slaves are not considered full human beings with rights, slaves’ only hope to obtain freedom expresses itself through violence. This, in turn, does not achieve justice, but only reverses the power dynamics at play, substituting one form of violence (slavery) for another (revenge). Through its symbolic power, Benito Cereno can be seen as a prophetic warning to the U.S. about the war that is to come. Violence might not be acceptable or legitimate, Melville warns, but it certainly seems inevitable, as slavery is likely to end only in bloodshed.
Violence and Slavery ThemeTracker
Violence and Slavery Quotes in Benito Cereno
In armies, navies, cities, or families, in nature herself, nothing more relaxes good order than misery.
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.”
Is it possible, thought Captain Delano; was it to wreak in private his Spanish spite against this poor friend of his, that Don Benito, by his sullen manner, impelled me to withdraw? Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man.—Poor fellow!
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?”
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.