In our MANY complex discussions of what it means to be an American, as well as what it means for literature to be “nationalized”, a resounding theme has continuously taken dominance in these discussions. It seems as though the theme of freedom has rung true, as it continues to, throughout most of the literature we have read thus far. While most of our reading’s settings have taken place within our great nation, this specific narrative, while featuring an American character, does not take place within America’s borders, but within international waters. However, despite its setting, it seems as though Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” continues on with the theme of freedom.
While at first glance, this story seems to feature the meeting between an American captain and an ill-Spaniard captain, who has been given charge of 150 or so African slaves to be transported from one port to another, there is a much deeper message waiting to be picked up by the reader.
Don Benito, the Spaniard captain of the San Dominick, seems to have taken ill, left with very little of his own crew due to sickness sweeping the ship. This seems to leave him with the lone option of employing the help of the cargo that was meant to be slaves as his only crew. At least… this is the story he shares with Captain Amasa Delano, the American who offers his own men as well as supplies to alleviate some of his fellow captain’s suffering. However, something seems to be extremely off about Don Benito’s story, especially when Captain Delano notices that, “Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, seized a knife, and though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed.” (15-16). At once, he explains to Don Benito that this would not fly had this occurred on his own ship- which is normal given the colonial time period in which this story takes place. However, Don Benito doesn’t seem to care- nor does he seem to care about much of anything else for that matter. This may probably be due to the fact that he is lying through his teeth, and has been taken hostage along with the rest of his Spanish crew by the African slaves in an act of defiance to insure their freedom.
Does this story sound familiar? Good… because it should, as we Americans were not always free citizens of our happy nation either. We earned our independence through the revolutionary war, in which we fought tooth in nail against the British, our captors, to insure our own freedom. And it seems as if our happy-ending of a narrative has spread from our own great nation to other nations as well- such as those being captured for enslavement in Africa.
So while these “captured African slaves” seem to be cast within this narrative as villainous, I am in strong support of the message they are sending in their theoretical takeover of both the San Dominick as well as of their own lives. They seem to be following America’s lead in a revolution of their very own. And thus, nationalizing literature has been taken to the next level- of literature that moves beyond the nation.