Contextualizing Slave Insurrections within Historical Fictions

As a group, I think it was clear we wanted to tackle the theme of contextualizing the historical elements of Melville’s short novella Benito Cereno, while respecting our own individual perspectives. Our unique approaches to the text reflect our own respective aspects of contextualizing a history of Slave Revolts in the Caribbean and a broader sense of the historical landscape Melville so elusively portrays. It was quite rewarding to be working with Anthony, Jenna, Lisa, Lauren, and myself and seeing each of own areas of “expertise” shine in illuminating various aspects to the text. Given the freedom in theme in relation to the novella, we took advantage of forming a consensus of theme and then going to independently annotate as we each gained a much broader understanding of the text through each other lens of knowledge. Aside the theme we also decided on splitting up the initial text into three parts given the limited time we had to critically engage with the text. We also decided to tie in all of our annotations under the hashtag #Bennythemap.

In the third section Anthony and I were assigned to annotate and frame our section around the themes of comparing other judicial and noted slave revolts to expand our understanding of why Melville chose to set his story surrounding the political turmoil of the Haitian Revolution. My process narrowed in to compare the most noted (similar) comparison to a fictional slave narrative, The Heroic Slave by Fredrick Douglas.

“Frederick Douglass wrote only one work of fiction: this novella, loosely based on a true incident, about a slave who leads a rebellion on board a slave ship. He published the story twice in 1853 — serially in his newspaper. But he clearly designed the tale to reach the larger white reading public: one of the most interesting aspects of the novella is the strategic way it tries to lead genteel readers not only to active engagement in the abolitionist cause, but also to grant black slaves the same right to rebel against tyranny that America enshrines in its founders. The novella, however, does not seem to have had many contemporary readers, although it was reissued at least once, in pamphlet form in 1863.”

With this notion of framing the context, I annotated several instances comparing the Creole and Haitian Insurrection and how each were historically respectively popularized in the media at the time. In comparison to the Haitian Uprising, the Creole case is relatively forgotten in history due to the tumultuous history between U.S and British relations which were strained under the negotiations of lost property upon liberating slaves in Nassau. By incorporating/annotating interactive maps of slave revolts in the Caribbean, it is interesting to ponder how much leniency can be afforded to authors such as Melville in making radical alterations in history for the sake of narrative plot. The distancing in reference to a revolt within the French Empire in comparison to U.S/British domination is also fascinating to think about in Melville’s illusive approach of subtly (with deep reading between the lines) making arguments for liberation and establishment of slavery. Would depicting a more contentions and politically sanctioned revolt be too controversial for Melville to tap into?

In summation, providing context to Melville’s novella was incredibly helpful in deciphering subtle text which attempts to make a moralistic argument grounded in a “real” historical setting. It would be incredibly interesting to continue this work in other 18-19th century style literature.