Benito Cereno

Background

Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco writes that in the 1850s, a revolt on a slave ship was not a far-fetched topic for a literary work. In 1839, the Spanish schooner La Amistad with fifty slaves became the site of slave revolt between two Cuban ports, and two crew members were killed. An American naval vessel seized the Amistad when the ship had wandered off course near Long Island. Then followed a legal battle which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams succeeded in setting the slaves free in the 1841 U.S. Supreme Court ruling United States v. The Amistad. In 1841 the American Creole moved slaves from Virginia to New Orleans when nineteen slaves killed a white sailor and took command of the ship, which then set sail to the British Bahamas. In the Creole case, the slaves were set free under the 1833 British Act of Emancipation. Madison Washington, the leader of the revolt, became the hero of a novel a decade later, in March 1853, when Frederick Douglass published the short novel The Heroic Slave in his anti-slavery newspaper North Star.[6]


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