When reading "Benito Cereno" it is easy to get swept up in the narrative and forget that one is reading about the very real issue of slavery. Indeed, for many years numerous scholars felt that it is merely incidental that Babo and his followers happen to be slaves - to these scholars, the characters are representations of "evil" who just happen to be slaves. However, readers at the time of the story's original publication would have been well aware of the brutal realities of slavery. Indeed, the United States was, at the time, on the brink of Civil War over that very question. Scholarship of "Cereno" since the sixties has taken this brutal context seriously - and rightly so.
When considering the context of the American Slave trade in "Cereno" the first thing to keep in mind is that Cereno's ship, the San Dominick, is a slave ship. Cereno describes his ship as having a few hundred slaves on board when it embarked on its journey. The diagram above illustrates how such a "cargo" of slaves would typically have been shipped. The slaves were made to lie in the hold of the ship, as close as they could possibly be packed together, for the duration of the weeks-long voyage. Conditions were incredibly unhygienic, and mortality rates on such ships were extremely high.
One of the central ironies of "Benito Cereno" is that the slaves' owner, Don Alessandro, does not keep them confined to the hold. He allows his slaves to remain above deck. The fact that the slaves still revolt - and gladly, as Melville is careful to emphasize - shows that this attempt to mitigate the slaves' inescapably miserable condition does not work. One cannot be a "happy slave" in Melville's story. The grim brutalities of the slave trade infect the community as a whole - in other words, a slave ship is still a slave ship, regardless of how "pleasant" the atmosphere.
As for slave revolts themselves, Melville tweaked history a bit by resetting Delano's original narrative in 1799, the year of a slave revolt on the island of Santo Domingo - an event that he also recalls in the name of the slave ship. This was an especially bloody revolt: by one estimate, 60,000 were killed in its course. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such revolts were not uncommon. At least 250 uprisings involving ten or more slaves were recorded as occurring in these centuries. In alluding to the uprising on Santo Domingo, Melville suggests in part that an uprising on a Caribbean island and one on a slave ship share a common spirit. Slaves, Melville demonstrates, can not be placated; their desire for rebellion can only be contained.
For public domain images of Early American slavery, made available through UC-Davis's History Project for social science teachers, visit http://historyproject.ucdavis.edu/khapp.php?Min=448.