Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 3: “Erelong, with a joyless mien…” to “…the mysterious demeanor of Don Benito Cereno” (pp. 158-168)
Cereno invites Delano to converse with him on the San Dominick’s poop deck (“an exposed partial deck on the stern superstructure of a ship,” American Heritage Dictionary). Delano is at first reluctant to accompany Cereno, in view of the menacing appearance of and sounds produced by the hatchet-polishers he earlier noticed. But Delano agrees, albeit with the apprehensive feeling of “one running the gauntlet.” He watches as a black boy, one of three playing with two Spanish boys, in anger cracks one of his white playmates over the head with a knife. Delano is amazed that the boy suffers no punishment, and wonders aloud why Cereno does not keep all the blacks occupied at some task, no matter how menial or meaningless.
In the course of their conversation, Cereno reveals that he is not the owner of the slaves. Their owner was a man named Alexandro Aranda, of whom Cereno cannot speak without visibly suffering emotional and physical turmoil. Delano asks if Aranda died of the fever; Cereno agrees with Delano’s statement. He also, however, reacts very strangely and violently at Delano’s supposition that Aranda’s remains are no longer aboard the ship.
When the ship’s bell tolls ten o’clock, a chained slave named Atufal comes and stands silently before Cereno; Delano assumes Atufal must be “some mulish mutineer.” At Babo’s prompting, Cereno asks if Atufal will request his pardon. Atufal will not. Cereno decrees that Atufal must therefore remain in his chains. Cereno tells Delano that he has chained Atufal for a “peculiar cause of offense,” and has decreed that he must stand before him every two hours and ask for pardon. Until he does, he will not be freed. He says this has been the case for sixty days. Delano remarks that Atufal possesses a royal spirit, and learns from Cereno and Babo that Atufal was a king in his native land; indeed, Babo was once Atufal’s slave.
As, at one point, Cereno and Babo are having a whispered conference—apparently regarding their American visitor—Delano happens to see a Spanish sailor, rope in hand, stepping from the deck to the mizzen rigging (a “mizzenmast” is “the third mast or the mast aft of a mainmast on a ship having three or more masts,” American Heritage Dictionary). His attention is again distracted when Cereno converses with him, likewise in whispers, about his ship’s itinerary and armament. Before Delano can fully grasp the import of this conversation, however, he sees the Spanish sailor on the mizzen rigging “stooping over to spring inboard to the deck,” revealing a fine, ribbon-laced linen tunic beneath his frock. Delano sees the sailor and Cereno exchange what appears to be a conspiratorial glance.
Delano’s reaction to the scene of the black child striking the white one with a knife offers a revealing insight into the character of “good Captain Delano” (p. 158)—and one, perhaps, that mitigates to some degree the alleged racism of Melville’s text. When Delano advises Cereno to keep “all your blacks” (note the language of possession) “employed… no matter at what useless task,” he reveals that he treats “my little band” the same (p. 159). Since, so far as we know, Delano is not a slaver, we can only assume he is referring to his own, presumably all-white, American crew. Thus, Melville may be presenting Delano as, in some regards, the moral equivalent of a slave captain, despite Delano’s supposed goodness, charity, and other virtue. We have already seen, for instance, Delano’s mental criticisms of Cereno for not running his ship with a firmer hand: “…had Benito Cereno been a man of greater energy, misrule would hardly have come to the present pass (p. 150); or, “I know of no sadder sight than a commander who has little of command but the name” (p. 159). Control—the exercise of brute force—would seem, then, to be of great importance to “good Captain Delano.” At the very least this introduces questions about his character as an individual; at most, it may—if, as speculated above, Delano is a symbol of the young American republic, the “new world” testing its power against that of “the old”—raise further questions about Melville’s view of America’s character and identity. Certainly, while Delano himself is not a slaver, the country under whose flag he sails is, in Melville’s day, a willing participant in the slave trade. More broadly, what might the fact that Delano equates power with “lording it over others” the way a master “lords it over” slaves say about American assumptions of power and strength in Melville’s eyes? Before leaving this scene, readers must, of course, remember that Cereno is not in command of his vessel or the people aboard it—suggesting the possibility that Delano (and America’s) “mastery” is just as illusory and empty.
Another clue into the questionable nature of Delano’s character is his imagined empathy with Cereno on the loss of a friend. In response to the loss of a friend on a previous trip, Delano apparently swore “never to have for fellow voyager a man I loved…” (p. 161). While some critics, such as Joyce Carol Oates, see this as textual evidence of a homoerotic subtext in the novel (“Introduction,” p. xv), it may also simply be a glimpse of another of “good Captain Delano’s” personal failings. He evidently calculates his attachment to his fellow human beings based on the likelihood of having to be responsible for embalming them, or burying them at sea. In short, he keeps his heart closed-off—an ironic trait for one who prides himself on charity and compassion!
The incident with the sailor on the mizzen offers one more instance—as if further evidence were needed—of Delano’s unwillingness to acknowledge that he does not comprehend the truth of the situation aboard the San Dominick—for instead of asking why Cereno and the sailor are glancing conspiratorially at each other, Delano again, in the name of civility, praises Babo’s faithful service. How civility—and “civilization”—can be invoked to conceal the truth!