Benito Cereno

Composition

Melville's main source for the novella was the 1817 memoir of Captain Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands.[7] Through this memoir, Delano recounts what happens after his vessel, the Perseverance, encounters the Spanish slave ship, the Tryal, on February 20, 1805, in a deserted bay at the island of Santa Maria. Delano's account of this encounter follows his thoughts and actions before, during, and after he realizes that the Tryal has been overtaken by the slaves aboard, thus allowing Melville to build his narrative for Benito Cereno.

.mw-parser-output .quotebox{background-color:#F9F9F9;border:1px solid #aaa;box-sizing:border-box;padding:10px;font-size:88%}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft{margin:0.5em 1.4em 0.8em 0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright{margin:0.5em 0 0.8em 1.4em}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.centered{margin:0.5em auto 0.8em auto}.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatleft p,.mw-parser-output .quotebox.floatright p{font-style:inherit}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-title{background-color:#F9F9F9;text-align:center;font-size:larger;font-weight:bold}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:before{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" “ ";vertical-align:-45%;line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox-quote.quoted:after{font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;font-weight:bold;font-size:large;color:gray;content:" ” ";line-height:0}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .left-aligned{text-align:left}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .right-aligned{text-align:right}.mw-parser-output .quotebox .center-aligned{text-align:center}.mw-parser-output .quotebox cite{display:block;font-style:normal}@media screen and (max-width:720px){.mw-parser-output .quotebox{min-width:100%;margin:0 0 0.8em!important}} We pulled as fast as we could on board; and then despatched the boat for the man who was left in the water, whom we succeeded to save alive. We soon had our guns ready; but the Spanish ship had dropped so far astern of the Perseverance, that we could bring but one gun to bear on her, which was the after one. This was fired six times, without any other effect than cutting away the fore top-mast stay, and some other small ropes which were no hindrance to her going away. She was soon out of reach of our shot, steering out of the bay. We then had some other calculations to make.

—Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817, Chapter 18, 325.[8]

Harold H. Scudder, who discovered the link between 'Benito Cereno' and Delano's A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, writes that Melville "found his story ready made. He merely rewrote this Chapter including a portion of the legal documents there appended, suppressing a few items, and making some small additions."[9] Besides changing the date to 1799, Melville made three more notable additions. First, while Delano does not describe the Spanish ship, Melville provides a description of a "Spanish merchantman of the first class," that had seen better days: "The tops were large, and were railed about with what had once been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair... Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turrot, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay." Second, Melville replaces the names Perseverance and Tryal by names of his own literary invention, Bachelor's Delight and San Dominick,[note 1] respectively. Third, while the real Delano was accompanied by his midshipman Luther, Melville's Delano visits the Spanish ship alone.[10] Melville introduces incidents of his own invention, chief among them the shaving of Don Benito, the giant Atufal in chains, and the lunch aboard the Spanish ship. Though the names of the captains remain unchanged, Melville changes the name of the confidential servant from Muri to Babo. Other additions include the two slaves attacking the Spanish seaman, the glimpse of the jewel, and the sailor presenting the Gordian knot. Melville elaborates on Cereno's leap into Delano's boat after Babo's attempt to stab Cereno as well as the revelation of the skeleton-shaped figurehead. Final inventions are Cereno's deposition at the beginning and his death in a monastery.[11]

Scholar Rosalie Feltenstein finds it "far from accurate" to say that he found his story ready-made in his source,[12] a statement not just contradicted by Scudder's own inventory of alterations, but instead of suppressing only "a few items," Melville in fact "omits the whole second half of the narrative."[13] Melville meant to both elevate the Cereno character, making him "as heartless and savage as the slaves," and to turn Babo into "a manifestation of pure evil." For instance, in the source Cereno himself tries to stab one of the slaves with a hidden dirk: "Transferred entirely to Babo, this action provides the crisis of the story and adds a final touch to the portrait of the slave's malignity."[14] Some of the "apparently trifling alterations" of his source can be explained by the artistic purpose of establishing a web of imagery pertaing to monks and monasteries.[15]

The boat was immediately dispatched back to pick up the three swimming sailors. Meantime, the guns were in readiness, though, owing to the San Dominick having glided somewhat astern of the sealer, only the aftermost could be brought to bear. With this, they fired six times; thinking to cripple the fugitive ship by bringing down her spars. But only a few inconsiderable ropes were shot away. Soon the ship was beyond the gun's range, steering broad out of the bay; the blacks thickly clustering round the bowsprit, one moment with taunting cries towards the whites, the next with upthrown gestures hailing the now dusky moors of ocean--cawing crows escaped from the hand of the fowler.

— Melville's "Benito Cereno".[16]

Andrew Delbanco points out Melville's elaboration of the episode in which Delano is struck by the scarcity of whites aboard when he first enters the San Dominick. The real Delano describes this in one phrase ("captain, mate, people and slaves, crowded around me to relate their stories"), but Melville expands the scene to one full paragraph.[17]

According to Melville scholar Harrison Hayford, "the island of Santa Maria is relocated from the coast of central Chile near Concepcion to 'down towards its southern extremity,'...the time span lengthened considerably, the legal deposition abridged and altered, the number of blacks multiplied, and names and roles are switched." One such switch is the replacement of Muri's name by his father's, Babo.[18] Melville's Babo is a blend of the central roles that Babo and his father Muri play in the source.[19] In their reproduction of Amasa Delano's chapter, the editors of the 1987 edition supply marginal page and line numbers indicating parallel passages in Melville's novella.[20] (Compare quoteboxes to see one example of such parallels.)

Biographer Parker concludes the legal documents section is roughly half Melville's own invention fused with slightly adapted documents copied from Delano. Melville's additions include cannibalism and the image of Columbus. Generally, his inventions are "not distinguishable without collation of the real depositions against Melville's deposition, for the Delano chapter provided dazzlingly evocative material to work from."[21] Another important distinction between Melville's account and A Narrative of Voyages and Travels to note is the death of two central characters in Melville's story, Babo and Atufal.

Historian Sterling Stuckey finds it unjust to restrict attention to chapter 18, because Melville used elements from other chapters as well.[22] He also names sources for the presence of Ashantee culture in the novella.[23]


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