126 Slaves = Humans, OK?

Maggie Pearson

The very depiction of Melville’s version of a slave rebellion is backwards and confusing and just not what it seems. First, it is as though the black people on the ship are at the mercy of the Spanish sailors. We then find out this isn’t right, and that Babo and his fellow Africans are actually the ones calling the shots. Out of all of this though, we are left feeling like the rebelling slaves are the bad guys, and Delano is the American savior. History (and our own morals) tells us that we are wrong to feel that way, and we must delve deeper into Melville’s use of language to see how he makes that twist in perspective happen.

In The Heroic Slave , it is far more obvious how readers are supposed to feel. In the novella, slavery is clearly inhumane; slave rebellion is more than justified and even patriotic. Madison often refers to his goal of “liberty” which is one of our unalienable rights, right? His goal seems honorable, while Babo’s seems treacherous. The way that Douglass describes the slave-gang on page 34 also reveals a much more negative attitude about slavery: “Here were one hundred and thirty human beings,– children of a common Creator-guilty of no crime-men and women, with hearts, minds, and deathless spirits, chained and fettered, and bound for the market, in a Christian country” (34). He deliberately calls them human beings (because that’s what they are) to remind the readers about their similar consciousness, and even about the fact that they are all God’s children. Douglass juxtaposes the humanization of the slaves with the treatment of the slaves, which is anything but humane.

So what is Melville’s point in being so indirect? It seems as though Douglass’ ruthless descriptions of the entire institution is far more effective for the cause of abolition. Perhaps because Melville was not as avid an abolitionist, he was more willing to make his readers think and ponder their situation. In this context, perhaps, the reader can feel like he or she came to a conclusion independently of the writer. Although there is a lot of truth behind what Douglass wrote, it could still come across as propaganda, specifically designed to make people support the abolitionist cause.

Read together, these two novellas ask us to examine the ways in which slave rebellion is depicted. Madison Washington puts it so clearly in the end of The Heroic Slave when he states that “We have done that which you applaud your fathers for doing, and if we are murderers, so were they.”

 

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