Justice in Benito Cereno: Justified?

With the novella Benito Cereno, Herman Melville adds himself to the ranks of white men that have written about slavery, black people and/or African Americans, and race-based oppression by white people. While reading this novella, I came to conclusions on Melville’s attitude about African slaves. But first, I want to briefly examine another literary comparison to Benito Cereno.
Written some 30 years after Benito Cereno, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) publicized the character of Jim, an adult, black slave. Twain presented Jim as a wise, good-natured, caring figure, though many question Twain’s often patronizing tone with Jim’s character. As a white man growing up in the post-Reconstruction Era South who was critical of slavery, Twain was able to give an honorable face to black people to mainstream white, American readers.
Melville wrote Benito Cerino in the pre-Civil War years. I consider the pivotal villain-hero, Babo, to be a sort of pre-Huck Finn “Jim” in the sense that Melville endowed Babo with rare traits that even surpassed the white characters in the novella. In Huck Finn, Jim is presented as more street-smart than the other white adults Huck knows, and, more importantly, Jim is presented to be more loving and paternalistic than Huck’s own parents and legal guardians.
In Benito Cereno, the “Negro Babo” is presented with cunning so infallible that he—along with the cooperation of his fellow captured Africans—is able to overthrow his captors, actively control them, and hide the truth from the growingly suspicious American Captain Delano. Melville presents Babo with villainous omnipotence and he uses Babo’s power to invoke a sense of discomfort or even fear among readers. In passages such as, “[Babo’s] 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…”) (p. 123), Melville ensures that Babo shows his position as a leader who must be followed even after his death.
Yet we must remember that the overall tone of the novel is one that does not condemn the slaves for their uprising. It is a story that allows a set of slaves to seek vengeance after hundreds of years of merciless treatment as a human subspecies. Particularly to the 21-st century reader, with our more progressive ideas about race than Melville’s 19th century readers, we cannot immediately write off Babo and company as ruthless, soulless, and unjustified. There is something that feels vindicating about Babo’s triumph in the end, as if for just a moment in history, we hear about African slaves rising up in a rare moment of justice, if a violent form of it.
Lastly, this form of rooting for violent justice reminds me of the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglorious Bastards, which portrays a group of Americans that assassinate Hitler. Throughout the film, the viewers are expected to share the anger that Brad Pitt and his mates feel when they encounter Nazis, culminating in a climactic cinematic justice when Hitler is slaughtered while in a cinema.
The tactics used in this film made me feel conflicted; for is it ever moral to delight in the violent murder of another human being? The tactics in Benito Cereno similarly trouble me. Does Melville wish for his readers to triumph alongside Babo’s terrifying, yet redemptive violence?

A slave ship being loaded off West Africa

One thought on “Justice in Benito Cereno: Justified?

  1. evdunbar

    Thanks for reminding us of the ways in which white supremacy mandates the imagined and ‘real’ disempowering of the black subject. In light of this post, I’m reminded of Rediker’s argument that part of the work that the slave ship did was to create a modern prison system meant to stop the continuous attempts on the part of enslaved peoples to revolt. What if instead of vengeance we presume that Babo and his crew have done nothing out of the ordinary, in the sense of what happens within the “drama” of the slave ship? I’m wondering what it might mean to think of resistance not as vengeance but as refusing the to tell and settle into the narrative of white power?

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