In 1805 there was a slave rebellion aboard the Tryal, a Spanish ship sailing from Valparaíso to Lima. This wasn’t unusual: hundreds of similar revolts broke out across the shipping lanes of the Atlantic, and nearly all ended in failure. There were rare exceptions: the rebels who seized the Cuban schooner Amistad in 1839 had the good fortune to make landfall in Long Island rather than Charleston, and were eventually released from custody and returned to Africa. The slaves aboard the Tryal weren’t so lucky. After drifting for weeks off the Chilean coast they were apprehended by the crew of another vessel. Several died fighting, many more were executed by the Spanish authorities, and the rest were sold at auction.
The Tryal revolt was put down by a Massachusetts sea captain called Amasa Delano, who described what happened in a memoir published in 1817. As Delano prepared to board the ship, the Africans, led by a father and son called Babo and Mori, ordered the surviving Spanish crew to act as if nothing had happened. Mori pretended that he was the personal servant of the Tryal’s terrified captain, Benito Cerreño. During Delano’s agonisingly protracted tour of the Tryal, Mori shadowed his ‘master’ whom he’d threatened to stab if the ruse was discovered. When Delano was about to return to his own boat Cerreño seized his chance: he leaped overboard from the gunwale and all hell broke loose. Delano’s memoir sold very few copies, despite the lurid story. But Herman Melville came across it decades later and reworked the themes of deception and desperation into one of his most famous works. ‘Benito Cereno’ was serialised in Putnam’s Magazine in 1855, just as the crisis over slavery in the United States was reaching its critical phase.
The Atlantic slave trade lasted four centuries but around half of the 12 million Africans who arrived in the Americas came in the relatively short period between 1776 and 1866. Although most ended up in the Caribbean, Brazil or the US, a large number were channelled to the Spanish possessions south of Brazil. For the officials responsible for governing Peru, Chile and the new viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, slavery offered a means of consolidating their rule in distant regions in the face of challenges from European rivals, indigenous people and truculent colonists. The decision to expand slavery in South America strengthened the arguments of imperial reformers and liberal merchants for freer trade, and by the early 19th century Spaniards in the Southern Cone enjoyed unprecedented commercial freedom. At least some of the Tryal rebels arrived in Montevideo (their first port in South America) aboard a Liverpool-flagged slave ship that had been captured off the coast of West Africa by a French privateer. Greg Grandin, whose new book recovers the Tryal rebellion and its literary afterlives, likes the image of a French Jacobin ship towing an English slave vessel towards the Spanish-American frontier. These ‘floating contradictions of the Age of Revolution’ brought slavery and liberty into uncomfortable proximity.
Slaves in the Río de la Plata, Chile and Peru were spared the proto-industrial sugar estates of Bahia or Cuba. They were conscripted by Spanish officials to gather the wheat harvest in January, but for the rest of the year worked as domestic servants and day labourers or in the emerging leather industry. The slaves who would end up on the Tryal were bought in Montevideo in 1804 by a man called Alejandro de Aranda. He took them across the Andes to Valparaíso – a journey three times cheaper than sending them by sea around the Cape – with the intention of moving them on to Lima, to be sold again. As they reached the most dangerous section of the pass, Aranda relied on their desire to stay alive and removed their neck chains.
In his portraits of Cerreño and Aranda, Grandin captures the lure of the Southern Cone to young men who lived on ‘the margins of advantage’. Aranda was born in Mendoza, on the road from Buenos Aires to the mountains, but thought of himself as Spanish. Cerreño came from a small town near Seville and a rural gentry class that was spiralling downwards along with Spain’s agricultural output. The liberalisation of trade in the last years of the 18th century offered these men opportunities: one as a slave-trader, the other as a sea captain. But Grandin’s most impressive feat of recovery concerns the Tryal slaves. Although neither Delano nor Melville mentioned this, the leaders of the uprising were Sufi Muslims from West Africa. Babo and Mori struck for freedom on Laylat al-Qadr, the ‘night of power’ marking God’s revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, on which the prayers of the faithful were always answered. The Spanish had legislated against Islamic immigration to the New World in 1501, but labour demands produced their own realities. Slavery, as Grandin puts it, was ‘the back door through which Islam came to America’.
Delano wrote his memoir to satisfy his many creditors. Reviewers complained that it was too long, and marred by interminable discussions of sailing protocol and business opportunities. No one paid much attention to the chapter about the revolt. But buried within the clutter are some sharp observations. One of Delano’s themes is that the indigenous people he met, from South Africa to Micronesia to Araucanía, rarely deserved the labels put on them by Europeans. ‘Thus goes the world,’ he writes. ‘One man robs another of his country, his wealth and his liberty; and then says he is a brute, and not a Christian.’ He gives a sympathetic account of Islamic worship in Indonesia, and says that China has ‘one of the best regulated governments in the world’. Amid much sermonising, the book has moments of disorienting candour. Delano recounts falling overboard with five shipmates off the coast of Tasmania. As his arms and legs went numb, he realised with horror that one of the other sailors, a Swede, was trying to grab hold of him. Delano kicked out at the man, and watched ecstatically as he slipped beneath the waves. ‘I never until then had experienced any satisfaction at seeing a man die; but so great is the regard we have for ourselves when in danger, that we would sooner see the whole human race perish, than die ourselves.’ Reviewers found this startling. After so many dull pages Delano had said something ‘bold and undisguised’.
Delano is an elusive figure in Melville’s story. He is nothing like Ahab: it’s hard to imagine him decrying the needs of owners, or placing vengeance above profit. But Grandin is reluctant to cast him as an innocent abroad, a sober New Englander on the edge of empire. He writes about Delano’s enthusiastic involvement in the seal trade and the despoliation of Más Afuera, the island five hundred miles west of Santiago which was at the crossroads of the Pacific seal trade. Multinational crews butchered seals with industrial efficiency, eventually destroying their own livelihood with their thoroughness. In an essay in the Nation, Grandin went further than he does in his book, suggesting that Delano was a founding father of extractive capitalism. The whalers of Moby-Dick, he writes, forged a ‘human solidarity’ as they turned carcasses into oil aboard the Pequod; Delano and the sealers, on the other hand, embodied ‘the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism and warfare’. The end products of whaling and sealing were moral opposites: whale oil was ‘used by all’ for the most basic needs, heat and light; sealskin was turned into capes, coats and muffs to ‘warm the wealthy’. This indictment overlooks the fact that whalers had created their own environmental catastrophe by the second half of the 19th century, and that sealing formed only part of Delano’s long career at sea. In his desire to make Delano’s sins as enduring as Ahab’s, Grandin loses some of the precision that underpins his book.
He also criticises Delano’s conduct after the uprising, when he and Cerreño embarked on a legal struggle over the status of the Tryal. Was it a prize vessel, lost by its original owners, which would entitle Delano to a huge share in its recovery? Or had Cerreño retained possession throughout, awaiting rescue rather than salvage? The resolution of this question kept Delano in Peru for more than six months. During the court proceedings, a judge ordered the sale of the surviving rebels to one of Lima’s leading slave traders, with the proceeds divided between the slaves’ owners (including relatives of Aranda, who was killed during the rebellion) and Cerreño. The viceroy ordered Cerreño to pay Delano eight thousand pesos from the sale. The money quickly passed out of Delano’s hands: he paid off the debts he’d incurred feeding his crew and navigating the Spanish legal system. But given his supposed aversion to slavery, did these transactions make him a hypocrite?
Grandin concedes that Delano became a sealer partly to avoid working in the Caribbean trade, which other New England captains pursued without scruple. That Delano nevertheless became embroiled in a slave revolt is a mark of the long reach of Atlantic slavery, even past Tierra del Fuego into the Great Ocean. Delano was determined to seek compensation for the Tryal’s recovery because sealing had brought him little reward: the beaches of the South Pacific were depleted, the markets in East Asia depressed. But since neither Britain nor the United States passed legislation against the slave trade until 1807, it’s hard to imagine Delano would have handled the confrontation with Babo and Mori any differently had his hold been stuffed full of seal skins.
In 1817, when Delano’s book was published, most politicians and intellectuals in both the North and the South agreed on the abstract wrongs of slavery, but not on the way to abolish it. In 1855, when Melville wrote ‘Benito Cereno’, Southern politicians no longer acknowledged slavery as an evil (even a necessary one), arguing that it spared whites the exhaustion of plantation labour and placed blacks under the protection of sympathetic masters. George Fitzhugh, the most influential pro-slavery theorist of the 1850s, said that wage labourers in the North were ‘slaves without masters’, enduring the scourge of economic exploitation without the balm of a kindly owner. Putnam’s Magazine responded to Fitzhugh and his associates with a series of essays rallying Northern liberals against slavery. Although Melville wrote regularly for Putnam’s, he said almost nothing about the gathering crisis. His silence has never sat well with his admirers, who look to ‘Benito Cereno’ for radical subtext. According to Grandin, Melville’s revisions to Delano’s narrative not only confirm his hostility to slavery but establish him as a prophet of our own historical moment in his recognition that the insidious effects of inequality would outlast emancipation.
The two moral sagas of the early United States – the drive for democratisation and the crusade against slavery – don’t line up neatly. The Democratic Party was the natural home of labour, immigrants and supporters of an extended franchise, but it frequently defended the interests of slaveholders. Melville wasn’t active in party politics, but his family and friends (including Nathaniel Hawthorne) were committed Democrats, and he spent most of his life in the Democratic stronghold of New York City. He was sceptical of the abolitionists’ moral absolutes. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael says that he might have become a captain or a commodore, but preferred the role of a ‘simple sailor, right before the mast’ because social distinctions are arbitrary: ‘Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.’ This philosophy binds him to his fellow sailors – black, white and Asian – as they ride out Ahab’s rages. But the idea of freedom as a spectrum rather than an absolute was as unsettling to radical abolitionists as it was convenient to slaveholders.
If Melville was reluctant to criticise the South, he was unusually attentive to the resonances of slavery in the hardening labour systems of the North. His maritime fiction consistently lamented the cruelty of shipboard discipline. In White-Jacket (1850) a wealthy Virginian says that during a short voyage aboard a man-of-war he’d seen ‘more flogging than had taken place on his own plantation of five hundred slaves in ten years’. And then there’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’, which appeared in Putnam’s two years before ‘Benito Cereno’. To the lawyer who narrates the story, Bartleby at first seems a model employee: he consumes legal documents ‘as if long famishing for something to copy’. But soon he begins to decline the tasks he’s assigned with a haunting politeness – ‘I would prefer not to.’ The things that made Bartleby seem so industrious – being the first person into the office and the last to leave, for example – are revealed, with theatrical ghastliness, as the fulcrum of his madness. (He’s been living in the office and subsisting entirely on ginger cake.) The narrator fancies himself the perfect boss in the new world of wage labour and, rather than summoning the police to drag Bartleby from the office, he moves the entire law firm to new premises. Eventually the unscrupulous landlord has Bartleby taken to jail, where he dies just before the lawyer makes a guilty visit. ‘Ah Bartleby!’ he says. ‘Ah humanity!’
‘Bartleby’ belongs to a moment when the dignity (or indignity) of wage labour was keenly debated. Because the lawyer likes his scrivener to be instantly available but feels uncomfortable when confronted with his subservience, he places Bartleby’s desk close to his own but behind a screen. When he discovers that Bartleby has been living in the office he doesn’t know what to do. Bartleby has no life beyond his job, deflects the lawyer’s attempts to have him fired, and couches his challenge in the language of good manners rather than resistance. ‘I burned to be rebelled against,’ the lawyer says, yet Bartleby merely ‘prefers not to’ co-operate with his orders.
If ‘Bartleby’ was a cipher for what Southerners (and some Northern Democrats) called ‘wage slavery’, it’s tempting to see ‘Benito Cereno’ as its thematic twin: a satire on the facile assumptions of the South about the strength and harmony of the slave system. (The stories appeared alongside each other in Melville’s 1856 collection, The Piazza Tales.) There are obvious similarities. Melville’s Delano and the narrator of ‘Bartleby’ have reassuringly liberal views, and are tasked with making sense of a reality that seems increasingly unco-operative. Cereno and Bartleby, by contrast, confound their challengers with what John Updike called ‘a defensive catatonia’. But while ‘Bartleby’ unmasks the agonies of alienated labour and points to unsettling continuities between Northern and Southern workforces, ‘Benito Cereno’ never becomes a full-throated assault on chattel slavery.
Instead the story concentrates on the unreliability of Delano’s perception. According to Melville, the captain’s ‘singularly undistrustful good nature’ prevents him from recognising anything ‘involving the imputation of malign evil in man’. The Africans have encountered the ideal person for their ruse. But Delano isn’t quite a dupe. From the moment he boards Cereno’s ship, he knows that something is terribly wrong; he just can’t make out what it is. The key to the deception, as in the real Delano’s memoir, is the relationship between Babo (Melville’s composite of Mori and his father) and Cereno. Babo and the other rebels have killed their owner, Aranda, before Delano boards the vessel. Melville has the Africans string up his corpse in place of the figurehead beneath a sign reading ‘FOLLOW YOUR LEADER’; this is concealed behind a sheet when Delano approaches. With Aranda dead and Delano aboard, Babo restages the master-slave relationship on his own terms. In the story’s most suspenseful scene he shaves Cereno, scraping a razor across his throat while Delano looks on, bewildered. Cereno shakes so violently that Babo draws a little blood, but Delano still doesn’t work out what’s going on.
Melville took his greatest liberties with Delano’s narrative in his depiction of the rebellion’s aftermath: he ignored the legal dispute in Lima and made the two captains fast friends. The real Cerreño became a sugar planter in his later years, managing a more compliant set of slaves in the Andean foothills before dying a quarter of a century after the Tryal rebellion. In Melville’s story, Cereno collapses in nervous despair before he makes landfall.
When Delano wrote his memoir in 1817, Americans saw the Southern Cone as full of potential. The liberalisation of the Spanish imperial economy had brought thousands of US sailors and merchants to South American ports, and the wars of independence that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808 seemed likely to follow the pattern of the American Revolution. By the 1850s perceptions of Latin America within the US were far less favourable. Melville had been on the fringes of the Young America movement, which saw the US invasion of Mexico in 1846 as a victory for democratic vigour over Spanish atrophy. At various points in Melville’s story, Cereno seems to embody the feudal atavism that Americans often ascribed to Latin America. For Delano, the Tryal is ‘like a whitewashed monastery after a thunderstorm’, with ‘Black Friars pacing the cloisters’. The hollowed figure of Cereno resembles Charles V ‘just previous to the anchoritish retirement of that monarch from the throne’. In Lima, with the Africans back in chains, Cereno can’t bear to look at Babo. By the time the rebels are marched to the gallows, he is insensible. Like Charles, he ends up in a monastery, overcome by melancholy and the scar of Babo’s fleeting mastery. Within a few sentences of Babo’s execution, Melville has the Spaniard ‘follow his leader’ to the grave.
Before Cereno collapses, Delano wonders why his new friend can’t shrug off what’s happened. ‘The past is passed,’ he tells him. ‘You are saved. What has cast such a shadow upon you?’ Cereno’s answer is the last thing he says in the story: ‘The negro.’ Grandin plots this cryptic response into the American future: perhaps Melville understood that the ‘deception’ of slavery would outlive abolition and ‘adapt itself to new circumstances, becoming even more elusive, even more entrenched in human affairs’. It’s an idea that made sense to Ralph Ellison, who took Delano’s question as the epigraph to Invisible Man. But there’s an element of wishful thinking here. ‘Benito Cereno’ is nothing like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Melville’s Babo – intelligent and coldly resolute – would find no place in what James Baldwin called the ‘virtuous sentimentality’ of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Yet it was Stowe’s novel, with its messianic depiction of black suffering, that fuelled the crisis of the 1850s. Melville’s work made no impression on the anti-slavery struggle.