On a late February day in 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano, master of the Perseverance, a sealer out of Boston, boarded a distressed Spanish ship carrying about 70 West African men, women, and children. Delano spent about nine hours on the vessel, called the Tryal. He talked with its sailors, who were few in number, doled out water to its black-skinned men and women, and took charge of organizing repairs. And all that time, he couldn’t see that it was the West Africans, whom he thought were slaves, and not the Spaniard who introduced himself as captain, who were in command.
Nearly two months earlier, the West Africans, who had been loaded at Valparaiso, Chile, bound to be sold in Lima, rose up, executing most of the Tryal’s crew and passengers, along with the slave trader who was taking them to Peru. Led by an elderly man named Babo and his son Mori, the rebels ordered Benito Cerreño, the ship’s owner and captain, to sail them to Senegal.
Cerreño stalled, cruising first north and then south, before running into the Perseverance. The rebels began to ready their weapons for a fight. But then Babo had an idea.
The West Africans let Delano come on board and acted as if they were still slaves. Mori stayed at Cerreño’s side and feigned at being a humble and devoted servant. Cerreño pretended he was still in charge, telling Delano stories about storms, doldrums, and fevers to account for the state of his ship and the absence of any officer aside from himself.
The alabaster-skinned Delano later wrote that he found himself surrounded by scores of Africans and a handful of Spanish and mulatto sailors telling their “stories” and sharing their “grievances” in a babel of languages. They spoke in Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani, and Spanish, a rush of words indecipherable in its details but soothing to Delano in its generalities, convincing the New Englander that the desperation he was witnessing was real, that he wasn’t being lured into a pirate’s trap.
Over the years, this remarkable affair—in effect, a one-act, nine-hour, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relation performed by a group of desperate, starving, and thirsty men and women—has inspired writers, poets, and novelists. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda thought the boldness of the slaves reflected the dissent of the 1960s. More recently the Uruguayan Tomás de Mattos’s Chinese box of a novel, La fragata de las máscaras, uses the deception as a metaphor for a world where reality isn’t hidden behind a mask but is the mask itself.
But by far the most haunting rendition of the events on the Tryal is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, first published in 1855. Melville left no letters or diaries, at least none yet found, that reveal his thoughts upon reading Delano’s memoir, or what had moved him to fictionalize Delano’s experience on board the rebel-held ship. But by the 1850s, Melville had become preoccupied with the sham of modern life, with the difficulty of distinguishing surface appearance from substance. So it isn’t hard to imagine what attracted him to the incident, and particularly to the duped Delano.
Delano, an experienced mariner in the middle of his third voyage around the world and a distant ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, didn’t know what to make of Cerreño. He remained uneasy around his Spanish counterpart, even after he had convinced himself that the man wasn’t a brigand. Delano mistook Cerreño’s trauma—the effect of hunger and thirst and of having lived for almost two months under a death threat, after having witnessed most of his crew’s execution—for disdain, as if the aristocratic-looking Spaniard, dressed in a velvet jacket and loosely fitting black pants, thought himself too good to converse with a pea-coated New Englander.
The West Africans, especially the women, also made Delano uncomfortable, though he couldn’t say why. There were nearly 30 females on board, among them older women, young girls, and about nine mothers with suckling infants. Shortly after Delano’s arrival, the women took their babies and gathered in the stern, where they began to sing a tune Delano didn’t recognize. Nor did he understand the words, though the song had the opposite effect on him than did the soothing mix of languages that had welcomed his arrival. It sounded like a slow dirge to death.
Then there was Cerreño’s servant, Mori, who never left his master’s side. When the two captains went below deck, Mori followed. When Delano asked Cerreño to send away the slave so they could have a word alone, the Spaniard refused. The West African was his “confidant” and “companion,” he insisted, and Delano could speak freely in front of him. Mori was, Cerreño said, “captain of the slaves.”
At first, Delano was amused by the attentiveness Mori paid to his master’s needs. He started, though, to resent him, vaguely blaming the black man for the unease he felt toward Cerreño. Delano became fixated on the slave. Mori, he later wrote, “excited my wonder.” Other West Africans, including Mori’s father, Babo, were also always around, “always listening.” They seemed to anticipate Delano’s thoughts, hovering around him like a school of pilot fish, moving him first this way, then that. “They all looked up to me as a benefactor,” Delano said in his memoir, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, published in 1817 and still, 12 years after the fact, confusing how he thought the rebels saw him that day with how they actually did see him. “I was deceived in them,” he wrote.
The day’s events have the triangular symmetry of a play and the historical and psychological depth of a Greek epic. Homer’s Odyssey is not about slavery, but it tells of a character, Odysseus, who many scholars think represents the first “modern self,” because he has not only an inner life but the cunning to manipulate that life to create a schism between what is seen on the outside and what exists on the inside. “I am nobody,” Odysseus says, playing with the subtleties of language to gull the Cyclops, and that’s exactly what Mori, Babo, and the rest of the slave-rebel troupe try to do to escape Delano—to act as if they were inconsequential slaves, nobodies hardly worth noticing.
Aside from its sheer audacity, what is most fascinating about the ruse is how it exposed a larger falsehood, on which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea that slaves were loyal and simple-minded people who had no independent lives or thoughts or, if they did have an interior self, that it too was subject to their masters’ jurisdiction, that it too was property. What you saw on the outside was what was on the inside. The West Africans used talents their masters said they didn’t have (reason and discipline) to give the lie to the stereotypes of what they were said to be (dimwitted and faithful).
And they did so under extreme conditions. They were exhausted and dying. Over the course of two years, the West Africans, many of whom, including the revolt’s leaders, were Muslim, had traced their journey across half the world by keeping track of the Islamic lunar calendar. They were brought first into Montevideo and Buenos Aires, force-marched across the South American continent, over the hypnotically flat pampas and then up the Andes, around the highest mountain in the Americas, into Chile, where, in Valparaiso, they were put on the Tryal. After nearly two months sailing the Pacific, the rush of power that came from their uprising had fallen away into desperation as food and water ran out. Two women and their two infant children had died by the time Delano came on board. It required enormous self-control to resist the temptation to either fight or surrender, to do anything needed for water and food. But they did.
It was only late in the afternoon, around 4 o’clock, that Mori, feeling a flush of pride for having pulled off the ruse, stepped out of character and the plot unraveled. Delano, realizing the depths of his delusion, then readied his men to unleash a God-awful violence—a violence that betrayed his own republican principles. The rebellion was put down, some of the slaves killed, and the Tryal was eventually returned to Cerreño’s command.
A number of years ago, when I first told my editor that I wanted to write a book about this event, she asked me how I planned to distinguish historical fact from Melville’s fiction.
Benito Cereno is one of the bleakest pieces of writing in American literature. Published in installments in late 1855, midway between the commercial and critical failure of Moby-Dick and the start of the Civil War, the novella reads like a devil’s edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had appeared a few years earlier. Where Stowe made her case for abolition by presenting Southern slaves as Christlike innocents and martyrs, Melville’s West Africans are ruthless and deceitful. They act like Toms—but they are really Nat Turners.
“Who aint a slave?” Melville had Ishmael ask in 1851’s Moby-Dick. There’s joy in the question, as well as in the implied answer—no one—an acceptance of the fact that humans, by sheer dint of being human, are bound to one another. Four years closer to the Civil War, Melville might have had that question in mind again when he wrote Benito Cereno. The answer would have been the same, yet the implications grimmer. There were no free people on board the Tryal (named San Dominick in the novella). Obviously not Cereno, held hostage by the West Africans. Not Babo and the rest of the rebels, forced to mimic their own enslavement and humiliation. And not Amasa Delano, locked in the soft cell of his own blindness.
Most of Benito Cereno takes place in the fictional Delano’s mind. Page after page is devoted to his reveries, and readers experience the day on board the ship—which was filled with odd rituals, cryptic comments, peculiar symbols—as he experiences it. Melville keeps secret, just as it was kept secret from Delano, the fact that the slaves are running things. And like the real Delano, Melville’s version is transfixed by the Spanish captain’s relationship to his black slave.
In the story, the historical Babo and Mori are combined into a single character called Babo, who gently tends to the broken Spanish captain, wiping spittle from his mouth and nestling him in his black arms when he seems to faint. “As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white,” Melville writes, “Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other.” What Melville is doing here is taking Hegel’s famous master-slave allegory—a dyad of interdependence—and adding a witness to make it a trio. But the witness is too dense to understand what he is witnessing.
Benito Cereno exerts a powerful pull on the imagination, which is what prompted my editor’s question. She thought it would be hard for me to escape its thrall. I don’t remember exactly how I responded, but I’m sure I brushed off the concern, thinking that the real-life affair deserved its own telling and that it wouldn’t really be that difficult to do so with the integrity it deserved, to distinguish fiction from fact.
I was right, up to a point.
Benito Cereno is psychologically stifling. Crammed onto the deck of a middling-size schooner, the novella conveys a claustrophobia specific to the place and time it was written: a country sealed off inside its own prejudices, as it lurched toward war. In contrast, I wanted to write a book that would reveal a larger panorama, a history global in scope and far-reaching in moral meaning, spilling beyond national and imperial borders, over four continents and two oceans.
That Babo, Mori, and some of the rest of their companions were Muslim (a fact that played a large role in their revolt and deception) meant that three of the world’s great monotheistic religions—Cerreño’s Roman Catholicism, Delano’s liberal Protestantism, and the West Africans’ Islam—confronted one another on the slave ship.
The story of the Tryal also unfolds not in the shadow of an internecine fratricidal war, but on the crest of an international revolution: the Age of Liberty, just after Haiti declared itself independent, at the moment the expansion of market capitalism and the spread of wage labor were redefining what it meant to be a slave and what it meant to be free.
Babo, Mori, and the rest of the West African companions arrived at the height of what the Spaniards, not mincing any words, called “free trade in blacks”—the unraveling, starting in the 1770s, of the tight mercantile regulations that for centuries had restricted the slave trade. More slaves came into Montevideo and Buenos Aires in 1804, the year the Tryal rebels arrived, than in any previous year, part of an army of forced laborers who were driving forth a market revolution that would soon transform the relationship of the American colonies to Spain (and, in the case of Brazil, to Portugal).
In recent years, historians like Walter Johnson, in River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013), and Adam Rothman, in Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Harvard, 2005), have focused on the tight, reinforcing links among slavery, territorial expansion, and capitalism that were forged in the United States after 1812. Tracing the harrowing journey of the Tryal rebels to the South Pacific broadens the picture, revealing the explosion of chattel slavery in Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, and Texas as but the last phase of a much longer, trans-American history.
In South America, starting in the 1770s, the driving of more and more humans inland across the continent, the opening up of new slave roads and the expansion of old ones, tied hinterland markets together and created local circuits of finance and trade. Enslaved peoples were at one and the same time investments (purchased and then rented out as laborers), credit and collateral (used to secure loans), property, commodities, consumer power (many were paid wages), and capital, making them an odd mix of abstract and concrete value in Spanish America’s new market economy.
“Free trade in blacks” created the wealth that, within two decades of the Tryal episode, would make independence from Spain possible. Writing in the 1970s, Yale University’s Edmund S. Morgan was one of the first modern historians to fully explore what he called the “central paradox” of the Age of Liberty: It was also the Age of Slavery. Morgan was looking specifically at colonial Virginia, but the paradox can be applied to all of the Americas, North and South, the Atlantic to the Pacific, as the history leading up to and including events on the Tryal demonstrates. What was true for Richmond was no less so for Buenos Aires and Lima—American freedom depended on and was defined by American slavery.
It might seem an abstraction to say that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery. But consider these figures taken from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Of the known 10,148,288 Africans put on slave ships bound for the Americas from 1514 to 1866 (of a total historians estimate to be at least 12,500,000), more than half, 5,131,385, embarked after July 4, 1776.
It turned out the book I wound up writing was, in terms of its scope and sprawl, more Melvillean than Melville’s hermetic fiction. I would have been content to let this irony speak for itself. Except that I couldn’t. There was something fundamentally false, and at the same time fundamentally true, about Melville’s portrayal of Amasa Delano, and the contradiction was hard to ignore.
Melville paints Delano as a man of “singularly undistrustful good nature,” a “blunt-thinking American,” suggesting that he saw the world only in black and white, incapable of grasping the gray nuance between. In the face of danger, he is blithe. Confronting darkness, he is lost in his own cheery thoughts. Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American studies, describes him as “a character whom we recognize as an ancestor of those callow Americans who walk through the novels of Henry James mistaking malice for charm, botching uncomprehended situations with the unintended consequences of their good intentions.”
It’s a commanding portrait, one of the first of many such innocents abroad that, over the years, has allowed scholars to marshal too easy a description of America’s shortcomings. During the cold war, literary critics read Delano’s “innocence,” represented in his inability to recognize Babo as an “existential” evil, as a metaphor for an America that only reluctantly assumed its position of responsibility in the world. More recently, after September 11, 2001, the political scientist Benjamin R. Barber, hoping to revive a tough-minded liberalism to fight terror abroad and hold back reckless neoconservatism at home, has identified Melville’s Delano as “oblivious not only to the hoary corruptions of foreign lands staggering under the burdens of despotic histories but to the evils residing within America’s own heart.”
The real Delano is significantly more complicated. His life encapsulated not the exhaustion of the American Revolution, as Melville experienced it in the 1850s, but the revolution’s openness and sense of possibility. Delano was a new American man, part of a generation that had shed Calvinist gloom to embrace an unprecedented religious and secular optimism, an insurgent belief that the natural condition of man was freedom.
On the day he encountered the Tryal, Delano was in the Pacific hunting seals. Except there were no seals left to hunt. He found himself on the downside of one of the most sizable booms and busts in economic history. In a remarkably short period of time, starting in the 1790s, seals were clubbed to near extinction on one island after another. The moral of his story—not just the incident of the Tryal, but the whole arc of his tragic life, filled as it was with other deceptions and deceits—is not found in any supposed excess of virtue or innocence but rather in the everyday pressures he faced trying to control labor and manage diminishing natural resources in the early days of America’s ever-expanding frontier.
Still, Melville does get something uncannily right in his rendering of Delano, capturing a new, insidious kind of republican racism: In the United States, at least, one response to the challenge that slavery posed to the American promise of self-creation was to make a fetish out of the ideal of freedom, to measure that ideal not in the degree of dependencies and enthrallments all humans find themselves in by dint of being human, but in opposition to history’s most brutal expression of bondage.
In other words, the slave-powered market revolution—the “free trade in blacks”—that spread across the Americas starting in the 1770s, solidified both the ideal of the free man and its contrary, the slave, on which that ideal was honed. Melville’s Delano believes himself a free man, answerable to his own personal conscience, in control of his inner passions, liberated to pursue self-interests, a belief that can exist only in relation to his imagined opposite: Babo, the servant-slave.
This, finally, is how I reconciled, or at least tried to, fiction and fact: Melville’s tale describes the deep structures of a racism that were born in chattel slavery but that didn’t die with it, a racism that, in the United States at least, was grafted on to, while at the same time disguised by, a potent kind of individualism, a cult of individual supremacy, based not only on the fantasy that some men were born natural slaves but that others could be absolutely free.
A feeling of dread permeates Benito Cereno that the fantasy won’t end, that after abolition, if abolition ever came, it would adapt itself to new circumstances, becoming even more elusive, even more entrenched in human affairs. It is that foresight that makes the story, compared, say, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, so enduring a work of art.
The events that inspired Melville, not just the ruse but the broader history that led all involved, both the deceived and the deceivers, to the Pacific, reveal the extent of the fantasy, the ways in which “free trade in blacks” served as a force multiplier. It took slavery’s original deception and insinuated it into every aspect of New World life and thought.
Author Bio: Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. His latest book, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, will be published next month by Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt.