Benito Cereno: An Allegory of American Racism off the Chilean Coast

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey.  The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a grey mantle.  Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

-Herman Melville, Benito Cereno

Disputably but often considered to have authored the greatest American novel Moby Dick (1851) and the greatest American novella Billy Budd (1891, published posthumously), Herman Melville lived his last decades on earth with his books and lectures widely panned receiving one brutal critical review after another. New York Day Book titled one of their reviews simply, "HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY." Billy Budd remained unpublished, perhaps unread until after his death when a Columbia professor researching Melville came across the manuscript visiting Melville's granddaughter. 

His novella Benito Cereno (1855) may point to some of the difficulties and rewards in reading Melville because of how much is left subtextual. The story is written from a close-third person perspective allowing the reader insight into little more than the thoughts of Amasa Delano, an American and captain of a merchant ship, who comes across a floundering Spanish ship holding African slaves as cargo off the coast of Chile. 

The narrative is often excruciating to read because Melville offers no respite from the prejudiced lens through which Delano understands his world. Delano is not himself a slave-trader, but nonetheless sees the slaves on the Spanish ship as nothing more than cargo and offers aid to the captain Benito Cereno. People have argued that Delano's character, who understands himself to be benevolent, not cruel, could serve as a metaphor for modern American power structures built, if not always maliciously, from an intrinsically racist worldview and intrinsically racist themselves. 

Because the narrave sticks so closely to Delano's perspective, it's easy to imagine someone who shares his prejudices understanding Delano as being a protagonist, "the good guy," with little more than the last sentence to suggest explicitly that Melville intended the opposite. "Benito Cereno" was first published in installments by abolitionist-friendly 
Putnam Monthly.

As a piece of trivia, if Amasa Delano's surname rings familiar, Melville's main inspiration was the memoir of a real captain Amasa Delano, distant ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.