Melville, Benito Cerreño, and the Judicial System

To preface this post, my group consisted of Lisa, Jenna, Lauren, Katharina, Raven, and myself. We divided the story into three parts according to Putnam’s Monthly installments in which it was released. Raven and I were tasked with the conclusion of the novella, so our concepts may radiate off one another. Upon starting the work on annotating the conclusion of Benito Cereno, I immediately found it very difficult to find ways to address the geography of the story, especially since we were the end of the tale and had a narrow stretch of time for working on this. During my extensive research into the trial the took place, I discovered the original story of Benito Cerreño (the name of the actual sailor).

Dr. Greg Grandin published an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Who Ain’t a Slave? Historical Fact and the Fiction of ‘Benito Cereno’” back in December of 2013. He addressed the actual historical context of the voyage that Melville’s Benito Cereno was based on. The name of the ship was the Tryal, and it was docked in Valparaíso, Chile when 70 West Africans were shoved on board with the intentions to be sold in Lima, Peru. These were not the assumed locations based on Melville’s text, who wrote it was in Santo Domingo, Haiti in order to fulfill the context of the Haitian Revolution (Raven addressed the Haitian uprising in her post, it’s super interesting, check it out). However, as Melville accurately wrote, the control of the ship was seized. Their voyage was redirected to the country of Senegal so that they could be free once again. Babo orchestrated the plot, but it wasn’t he who was Cerreño’s right-hand man, it was his son Mori. Cerreño attempted to stall the voyage by sailing north and south, thats when they ended up near Bristol, where Delano joined the excursion. I could go into much further detail, but for the sake of word-count, I won’t overdo it. The link is provided in the title for anyone interested.

Since our section was not heavy with the geography, I did find it helpful to create a very basic map of the actual voyage titled “Journey of the Tryal,” using ArcGIS. I’ll provide an image, but it is purely for the sake of a visual to understand where it was supposed to go versus where it ended up:

Map of the Tryal’s Voyage in 1805

If you go to ArcGIS, you can click the paths and symbols and it’ll tell you what they represent. As far as what I chose to annotate, I focused mainly on the court case and depositions of relating to Babo’s tragic fate. Right around the time Benito Cereno was published (1855), two of the biggest cases in terms of slave liberation came about. In 1853, the Robin Holmes v. Nathaniel Ford case took place in Oregon, and in 1857 the world renown Dred Scott v. Stanford case arose. I took the contextual backgrounds of these individual cases and used them as a scope in regards to viewing Babo’s treatment by the judicial court system as well as Benito Cereno himself.

All in all, I found that understanding the original voyage experienced by Delano and Benito Cerreño was a unique way of understanding Melville’s intentions in writing Benito Cereno in the manner that he did. Also, seeing what was happening around the world politically in terms of the slave revolts and court cases provided an interesting perspective on his view on the treatment of enslaved humans.

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