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“Benito Cereno” is based on the memoir of the real-life Captain Amasa Delano, who during his voyages in 1805 came upon a Spanish merchant-ship in distress. Melville preserves the main elements of the story—the ship is manned by a skeleton crew of Spaniards under the haggard and enigmatic captain Benito Cereno, and carries Africans for the slave trade—but provokes interpretation by altering some historical facts. He sets the story in 1799, and renames the ship San Dominick. In this and other details, Melville evokes the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue.
Haiti is the only republic founded as the result of a slave revolt. But white Americans, despite their own revolution only a couple of decades earlier, sided against black Haitians fighting for freedom, and feared that slave revolts would spread throughout the Caribbean and into the slavery-based southern United States. Melville’s story captures this unease.
In the third of a four-part program, Captain Delano finally discovers the true nature of the enclosed society on board the San Dominick. The painstaking interiority of the first half of the story switches abruptly to violent action.
This episode features guest Maisha Wester, an associate professor at Indiana University and author of African American Gothic: Screams from Shadowed Places. Wester discusses the Haitian Revolution as background to Melville’s story, and Babo as a figuration of the white inability to “read” the black slave.
The episode was produced by Doug Storm and Cynthia Wolfe with Sarah Torbeck, and written by Cynthia Wolfe with Doug Storm, who is the reader and interviewer. Special music comes from River of Light by Richard Danielpour, as recorded by Tim Fain and Pei-Yao Wang.
Announcer: Berklea Going
Host: Sarah Torbeck
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes