Slavery and racism
Because of its ambiguity, the novella has been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist. However, by the mid-20th century, at least some critics read Benito Cereno as a tale that primarily explores human depravity and does not reflect upon race at all. Feltenstein sees "a trace of nineteenth-century satanism in Babo," and asserts that "Slavery is not the issue here; the focus is upon evil in action in a certain situation."
Since the 1940s, criticism has moved to reading Babo as the heroic leader of a slave rebellion whose tragic failure does not diminish the genius of the rebels. In an inversion of contemporary racial stereotypes, Babo is portrayed as a physically weak man of great intellect, his head (impaled on a spike at the end of the story) a "hive of subtlety". For Newton Arvin in 1950, Babo was "a monster out of Gothic fiction at its worst", for Frederick Busch in 1986 "Babo is the genius of the story", and it is "his brain the white men fear".
Later critics, such as Valerie Bonita Gray, regard Delano's "racial perceptions" as the cause of his blindness: "Delano never suspects the truth aboard the San Dominick because he stereotypes the mentality of the slaves", and sees them as "musical, good-humored and cheerful". in reality, enough incidents occur to suspect a "mutinous activity on the part of the slaves", but Delano "does not see them as intelligent human beings".
Other critics regard Melville's alteration of the year of events from 1805 to 1799, the Christopher Columbus motif, and the name of the San Dominick as allusions to the French colony then known as Saint-Domingue, called Santo Domingo in Spanish, one of the first landing places of Columbus. In the 1790s a slave revolt took place there under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, which led to the first free black republic in the Americas. According to scholar Hester Blum, the voyages of Columbus, "who initiated New World colonization and slavery," form the "negative inspiration" of Babo's revolt. Columbus's importance for the novella is signalled repeatedly, most dramatically by the "follow your leader"-sign under the figurehead: as revealed in the legal documents, Columbus's was the original figurehead who had been replaced by the skeleton.
Robertson-Lorent finds that "Melville indicts slavery without sentimentalizing either the blacks or the whites." Any apparently kind behavior toward the slaves is deceptive by nature: not only does such conduct not change the fact that the captain considers the slaves his property, but it also rests on the motif that it is a "purely self-serving" financial interest of the captain to treat his peculiar "cargo" well. The Americans display no better moral when they board the ship at the end of the story: it is not kindness that refrains them from killing the Africans, but their plan to claim the "cargo" for themselves. In addition to this principal state of affairs, "freedom within the confines of a slave ship did not protect the women against rape and sexual abuse," and in fact allowing the women to walk on the deck "made them more accessible to the lustful crew." Delano's impression of the female slaves is part of his overall misperception: "After Aranda's death, the women, whom Delano imagines to be as docile and sweet as does with their fawns, shave Aranda's bones clean with their hatchets, then hang his skeleton over the carved figurehead of Cristobal Colón as a warning to the surviving Spaniards."
The nature of perception
Bryant observes an epistemological dimension to the story, as Delano admires the black race not for its humanity but for its perceived servility. This prejudiced view renders Delano unable to see the black people's ability to revolt and unable to understand the slave ship's state of affairs. The issue is "not his lack of intelligence, but the shape of his mind, which can process reality only through the sieve of a culturally conditioned benevolent racism," and Delano is eventually "conned by his most cherished stereotypes." Berthoff sees a contrast between Delano and Don Benito's "awareness," caused by the "harrowingly different circumstances" through which they come to meet each other. Seeing no essential difference between Delano's consciousness and the more or less blind way of life of every human being, he sees the story "as composing a paradigm of the secret ambiguity of appearances--an old theme with Melville--and, more particularly, a paradigm of the inward life of ordinary consciousness, with all its mysterious shifts, penetrations, and side-slippings, in a world in which this ambiguity of appearances is the baffling norm."
Delbanco observes that Delano's psychology switches between tension and fear. Each time some anomaly occurs, such as the slave who stands unbowed before a white man trembling with fear, Delano contemplates the matter deeply and always thinks up a reason for feeling relieved.
The shaving scene
The scene of Babo's shaving of Don Benito is, in Delbanco's words, "a meditation on subjectivity itself." Captain Delano enjoys the sight of Babo performing the kind of personal service to his master Delano thinks blacks are especially well suited for, manicuring, hair-dressing, and barbering.[note 3] Don Benito, on the other hand, shakes with fear. Apparently, Babo tests the blade across his palm, and for Delano the sound is that of a man humbling himself, while Cereno hears "the black man warning him: if you make one move toward candor, I will cut your throat." When Delano notices that the shaving cloth covering Don Benito is the Spanish flag, he finds this use an indignity that for a moment gives him occasion to see in Babo a "headsman" and in Don Benito "a man at the block", but quickly reassures himself that blacks are like children and therefore fond of bright colors, so that nothing is wrong with scene. In Delbanco's estimation, "Delano's capacity for self-deception is limitless."
Babo then draws a spot of blood from Don Benito with a flick of his razor, an accident he calls "Babo's first blood" and blames on Don Benito's shaking. He then concludes Don Benito's toilette with a comb, as if to put on a show for Delano. Then, just when Delano has preceded the other two out of the cabin, Babo cuts himself in the cheek. On deck, he shows Delano the bleeding and explains that this is Don Benito's punishment for the accident. Delano is momentarily shocked by this Spanish cruelty, but when he sees Babo and Don Benito reconciled he is relieved to notice that the outrage has passed.
One other strain in criticism is to read in the story an almost Jamesian moral with Delano as the American who, "confronted with evil in unescapable form, wanted only to turn over a new leaf, to deny and to forget the lesson he ought to have learned." Such an American survives "by being less than fully human," while Europeans are "broken by the weight of their knowledge of and complicity in human evil." Literary historian Richard Gray calls the novella an interrogation of "the American optimism of its narrator [sic] and the European pessimism of its protagonist, Cereno, under the shadow of slavery." Delano represents a version of New England innocence which has also been read as strategy to ensure colonial power over both Spain and Africans in the "New World".