in benito cereno
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"Follow your leader" might well be the motto of "Benito Cereno." It appears early in the story, underneath the concealed skeleton of Don Aranda, and is repeated throughout the tale, always signifying something new. The "leader" in the inscription might refer to Aranda - threatening that if the whites defied the blacks they would follow that Don to their deaths. Or it might be Cereno, whose docile example throughout most of the tale provides a model for those Spaniards who wish to save their necks. Later in the story, "Follow your leader" is Delano's mate's rallying cry as he leads the Americans to capture the San Dominick from the rebel slaves. Finally, Cereno "follow[s] his leader," Babo, into death at the tale's close.
In a complex society, it is never a simple matter to separate leaders from followers. For the greater part of "Benito Cereno," Captain Delano is stupidly unable to conceive of Babo, Atufal, or any black person as a leader. Their color demarcates them, in his view, as followers. Far from even considering the question of Babo's leadership, Delano is more distracted by whether or not Cereno is a genuine leader, or an imposter "masquerading as an oceanic grandee." In Delano's opinion, leadership comes with a prerequisite: white skin.
Ironically, the effect of Delano's tunnel vision works to Babo's advantage as a leader. In fact, Babo's leadership thrives on his being perceived as a follower. There is no doubt that, of the characters in "Benito Cereno," Babo exhibits more than anyone else the qualities of a true leader. He is resourceful, planning the series of masquerades on board the San Dominick after Delano had spotted them. He is improvisatory and bold, deciding on the fly to attempt to take the Bachelor's Delight. He has a creative, performative flair. And yet the moment Babo is revealed as a leader, his power has vanished. He is physically overwhelmed, and chooses to live out the rest of his brief life in silence.
Melville, then, depicts leadership as a paradoxical quality - just as effective, sometimes, when it is hidden as when it is brandished on a battlefield. The leaders of an age are not necessarily those with the captain's hats, he suggests. They are the visionaries, the creative spirits, the souls who refuse - like Babo, unlike Cereno - to live surrendered lives.