Wednesday, February 20, 1805, shortly after sunrise, in the South Pacific
Captain Amasa Delano was lying awake in his cot when his deck officer came to tell him that a vessel had been spotted coming round the southern head of Santa María, a small, uninhabited island off the coast of Chile. By the time Delano had dressed and come topside the "strange ship," as he later described it, had slackened its sails and was now drifting with the wind toward an underwater ledge. To his puzzlement, it flew no flag. It looked to be in want and, if it drew closer to the shallows, in danger. Delano hastily had water, pumpkins, and fresh fish loaded in a boat. He then ordered it hoisted down and went on board.
The weather that morning was thick and breezy but the sun rose to reveal a calm bay. The other side of the island, from where the mysterious ship had appeared, was rough. Endless breakers, sharp-toothed underwater reefs, and steep rock-faced cliffs made its coastline unapproachable, providing sanctuaries for the seals that elsewhere had been hunted to near extinction. But the island’s east, where the Perseverance harbored, was peaceful, the Southern Hemisphere’s waning summer offering a harmony of lulling earth tones, brown, rich dirt, green sea, and cloudless blue skies. High bluffs blanketed by wild red thistles shielded a sandy, safe haven used by sealers and whalers to socialize, pass mailbags to ships bound home, and replenish wood and water.
As he came closer, Delano could see the ship’s name, the Tryal, painted in English in faded white letters along its bow. He could also see that its deck was full of black-skinned people, who looked to be slaves. And when he climbed on board, the alabaster-skinned New Englander discovered 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. Earlier, as his men rowed toward the ship, he could see that its sails were tattered. What should have been an orderly web of rigging and tackle was a wooly mash. Its hull, calcified, moss covered, and pulling a long trail of sea grass, gave off a greenish tint. But he knew it was a common pirates’ ploy to make ships appear distressed in order to lure victims on board. Napoleon had just crowned himself emperor of the French, Madrid and Paris were at war with London, and privateers were raiding merchant ships at will, even in the distant South Pacific. Now, though, hollow cheeks and frantic eyes confirmed that the misery was real, turning Delano’s fears into "feelings of pity."
Amasa Delano was on board the Tryal for about nine hours, from around seven in the morning to a little after four in the afternoon. Having sent his away team back to the island to fill the Tryal’s casks with water, he spent most of the day alone among its voyagers, talking with its captain, helping to distribute the food and water he had brought with him, and securing the ship so it didn’t drift. Delano, a distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from a respected shipbuilding and fishing family on the Massachusetts coast, was an experienced mariner in the middle of his third sail around the world. Yet he couldn’t see that it was the Tryal’s slaves, and not the man who introduced himself as its master, who were in command.
Led by an older man named Babo and his son Mori, the West Africans had seized control of the Tryal nearly two months earlier and executed most of its crew and passengers, along with the slave trader who was taking them to Lima. They then ordered Benito Cerreño, the vessel’s owner and captain, to sail them to Senegal. Cerreño stalled, afraid of rounding Cape Horn with only a handful of sailors and a ship full of mutinous slaves. He cruised first up and then down the Chilean coast, before running into Delano’s Perseverance. The slaves could have fought or fled. Instead, Babo came up with a plan. The West Africans let Delano come on board and they acted as if they were still slaves. Mori stayed at Cerreño’s side and feigned to be a humble and devoted servant. Cerreño pretended he was still in charge, making up a story about storms, doldrums, and fevers to account for the state of his ship and the absence of any officer besides himself.
Delano didn’t know what to make of Cerreño. He remained uneasy around him, even after he had convinced himself that he wasn’t a brigand. Delano mistook Cerreño’s vacant stare—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 being executed—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 thirty females on board, among them older women, young girls, and about nine mothers with suckling infants. Once the food and water had been doled out, the women took their babies and gathered together in the stern, where they began to sing a slow dirge to 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.
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 the slave away 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 had 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 wrote in his memoir, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, published in 1817, still, twelve years after the fact, confusing how he thought the rebels saw him that day with how they actually did see him.
It was only in the late afternoon, around four o’clock, after his men had returned with the additional food and supplies, that the ploy staged by the West Africans unraveled. Delano was sitting in the stern of his away boat, about to return to the Perseverance, when Benito Cerreño leapt overboard to escape Mori and came crashing down at his feet. It was at that point, after hearing Cerreño’s explanation for every strange thing he saw on board the Tryal, that Delano realized the depth of the deception. He then readied his men to unleash a god-awful violence.1
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, most of whom didn’t speak the language of their would-be captors—inspired a number of writers, poets, and novelists, who saw in the masquerade lessons for their time. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, for example, thought the boldness of the slaves reflected the dissent of the 1960s. In the last years of his life, Neruda started first a long poem and then a screenplay that he called "Babo, the Rebel." More recently the Uruguayan Tomás de Mattos wrote a Chinese box of a novel, La Fragata de las máscaras, which used the deception as a metaphor for a world where reality wasn’t what was hidden behind the mask but the mask itself.2
But by far the most famous story inspired by the events on the Tryal, and one of the most haunting pieces of writing in American literature, is Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno. Whether he was impressed with the slaves’ wile or intrigued by Amasa Delano’s naïveté, Melville took chapter 18 of Amasa Delano’s long memoir, "Particulars of the Capture of the Spanish Ship Tryal," and turned it into what many consider his other masterpiece.
Melville uses the ghostly ship itself to set the scene, describing it as if it came not from the other side of the island but out of the depths, mantled in vapors, "hearse-like" in its roll, trailing "dark festoons of sea-grass," its rusted main chain resembling slave chains and its ribs showing through its hull like bones. Readers know there is evil on board, but they don’t know who or what it is or where it might lurk.3
Apart from a wholly invented ending, Benito Cereno, published in installments in a magazine called Putnam’s Monthly in late 1855, is mostly faithful to Delano’s account: after the ruse is revealed, the ship is captured and its rebels turned over to Spanish authorities. But it is what happens on the ship, which takes up two-thirds of the story, that led reviewers at the time to comment on its "weird-like narrative" and to describe reading it as a "creeping horror."4
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 body servant. In the story, Melville combines the historical Babo and Mori into a single character called Babo, described as a slight man with an open face. The idea that the West African might not only be equal to the Spanish captain but be his master was beyond Delano’s comprehension. Amasa observes Babo gently tending to the unwell Cereno, dressing him, 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." At one point, Melville has Babo remind Cereno it is time for his shave and then has the slave psychologically torture the Spaniard with a straight razor, as Amasa, clueless, watches.
Melville wrote Benito Cereno midway between the critical and commercial failure of 1851’s Moby-Dick and the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, at a moment when it seemed like the author and the country were going mad. Crammed into one day and onto the deck of a middling-sized schooner, the novella conveys a claustrophobia that could be applied either to Melville (he had at this point shuttered himself away from the world, in the "cold north" of his Berkshire farm) or to a nation trapped (as Amasa Delano was trapped) inside its own prejudices, unable to see and thus avert the coming conflict. Soon after he finished it, Melville collapsed and America went to war. It’s a powerful story.5
So powerful, in fact, that it is easy to forget that the original incident it is based on didn’t occur in the 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, or in the usual precincts where historians of the United States study slavery, such as on a ship in the Atlantic or on a plantation. It happened in the South Pacific, five thousand miles away from the heartland of U.S. slavery, decades before chattel bondage expanded in the South and pushed into the West, and it didn’t involve a racist or paternalist slave master but instead a New England republican who opposed slavery. The events on the Tryal illuminate not antebellum America as it headed to war but an earlier moment, the Age of Revolution, or the Age of Liberty. The revolt took place in late 1804, nearly exactly midway between the American Revolution and the Spanish American wars for independence. 1804 was also the year Haiti declared itself free, establishing the second republic in the Americas and the first ever, anywhere, born out of a slave rebellion.
Writing in the 1970s, Yale’s Edmund Morgan was one of the first modern historians to fully explore what he called the "central paradox" of this Age of Liberty: it also was the Age of Slavery. Morgan was writing specifically about 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 reveals. What was true for Richmond was no less so for Buenos Aires and Lima—that what many meant by freedom was the freedom to buy and sell black people as property.6
To be sure, Spain had been bringing enslaved Africans to the Americas since the early 1500s, long before subversive republicanism, along with all the qualities that a free man was said to possess—rights, interests, free will, virtue, and personal conscience—began to spread throughout America. But starting around the 1770s, the slave trade underwent a stunning transformation. The Spanish Crown began to liberalize its colonial economy and the floodgates opened. Slavers started importing Africans into the continent any which way they could, working with privateers to unload them along empty beaches and in dark coves, sailing them up rivers to inland plains and foothills, and marching them over land. Merchants were quick to adopt the new language associated with laissez-faire economics to demand the right to import even more slaves. And they didn’t mince words saying what they wanted: they wanted más libertad, más comercio libre de negros—more liberty, more free trade of blacks.
More slaves, including Babo, Mori, and the other Tryal rebels, came into Uruguay and Argentina in 1804 than any year previous. By the time Amasa was cruising the Pacific, a "slavers’ fever," as one historian has put it, had taken hold throughout the continent. Each region of America has its own history of slavery, with its own rhythms and high points. But taking the Western Hemisphere as a whole, what was happening in South America in the early 1800s was part of a New World explosion of chattel bondage that had started earlier in the Caribbean, and was well under way in Portuguese Brazil. After 1812, it would hit the southern United States with special force, with the movement of cotton and sugar into Louisiana and across the Mississippi, into Texas.
In both the United States and Spanish America, slave labor produced the wealth that made independence possible. But slavery wasn’t just an economic institution. It was a psychic and imaginative one as well. At a time when most men and nearly all women lived in some form of unfreedom, tied to one thing or another, to an indenture, an apprentice contract, land rent, a mill, a work house or prison, a husband or father, saying what freedom was could be difficult. Saying what it wasn’t, though, was easy: "a very Guinea slave." The ideal of the free man, then, answerable to his own personal conscience, in control of his own inner passions, liberated to pursue his own interests—the rational man who stood at the center of an enlightened world—was honed against its fantasized opposite: a slave, bonded as much to his appetites as he was to his master. In turn, repression of the slave was an often repeated metaphor for the way reason and will must repress desire and impulse if one were to be truly free and be able to claim equal standing within a civilization of similarly free men.7
It might seem an abstraction to say that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery. But consider these figures: of the known 10,148,288 Africans put on slave ships bound for the Americas between 1514 and 1866 (of a total historians estimate to be at least 12,500,000), more than half, 5,131,385, were embarked after July 4, 1776.8
The South Pacific pas de trois between the New Englander Amasa Delano, the Spaniard Benito Cerreño, and the West African Mori, choreographed by Babo, is dramatic enough to excite the wonder of any historian, capturing the clash of peoples, economies, ideas, and faiths that was New World America in the early 1800s. That Babo, Mori, and some of the rest of their companions were Muslim means that three of the world’s great monotheistic religions—Cerreño’s Catholicism, Delano’s Protestantism, and the West Africans’ Islam—confronted one another on the stage-ship.
Aside from its sheer audacity, what is most fascinating about the daylong deception is the way it exposes a larger falsehood, on which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea not just that slaves were loyal and simpleminded but that they had no independent lives or thoughts or, if they did have an interior self, that it too was subject to their masters’ jurisdiction, it too was property, that what you saw on the outside was what there was on the inside. The West Africans used talents their masters said they didn’t have (cunning, reason, and discipline) to give the lie to the stereotypes of what they were said to be (dimwitted and faithful). That day on board the Tryal, the slave-rebels were the masters of their passions, able to defer their desires, for, say, revenge or immediate freedom, and to harness their thoughts and emotions to play their roles. Mori in particular, as a Spanish official reviewing the affair later wrote, "was a man of skill who perfectly acted the part of a humble and submissive slave."9
The man they fooled, Amasa Delano, was in the Pacific hunting seals, an industry as predatory, bloody, and, for a short time, profitable as whaling but even more unsustainable. It’s tempting to think of him as the first in a long line of American innocents abroad, oblivious to the consequences of their actions, even as they drive themselves and those around them to ruin. Delano, though, is a more compelling figure. Born in the great upswell of Christian optimism that gave rise to the American Revolution, an optimism that held individuals to be in charge of their destinies, in the next life and this, he embodied all the possibilities and limits of that revolution. When he first set out as a sailor from New England, he carried with him the hopes of his youth. He believed slavery to be a relic of the past, certain to fade away. Yet his actions on the Tryal, the descent of his crew into barbarism, and his behavior in the months that followed, spoke of a future to come.
Herman Melville spent nearly his whole writing career considering the problem of freedom and slavery. Yet he most often did so elliptically, intent, seemingly, on disentangling the experience from the particularities of skin color, economics, or geography. He rarely wrote about human bondage as an historical institution with victims and victimizers but rather as an existential, or philosophical, condition common to all. Benito Cereno is an exception. Even here, though, Melville, by forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of Amasa Delano, is concerned less with exposing specific social horrors than with revealing slavery’s foundational deception—not just the fantasy that some men were natural slaves but that others could be absolutely free. There is a sense reading Benito Cereno that Melville knew, or feared, that the fantasy wouldn’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’s this awareness, this dread, that makes Benito Cereno so enduring a story—and Melville such an astute appraiser of slavery’s true power and lasting legacy.
I first learned that Benito Cereno was based on actual events when I assigned the novella for a seminar I taught on American Exceptionalisms. That class explored the ways an idea usually thought of exclusively in terms of the United States—that America had a providential mission, a manifest destiny, to lead humanity to a new dawn—was actually held by all the New World republics. I began to research the history behind Benito Cereno, thinking that a book that focused narrowly on the rebellion and ruse could nicely illustrate the role slavery played in such self-understandings. But the more I tried to figure out what happened on board the Tryal, and the more I tried to uncover the motives and values of those involved, of Benito Cerreño, Amasa Delano, and, above all, of Babo, Mori, and the other West African rebels, the more convinced I became that it would be impossible to tell the story—or, rather, impossible to convey the meaning of the story—without presenting its larger context. I kept getting pulled further afield, into realms of human activity and belief not immediately associated with slavery, into, for instance, piracy, sealing, and Islam. That’s the thing about American slavery: it never was just about slavery.
In his memoir, Delano uses a now obsolete sailor’s term, "horse market," to describe the explosive pileup of converging tides, strong enough to scuttle vessels. It’s a good metaphor. That’s what the people on board the Tryal were caught in, a horse market of crashing historical currents, of free trade, U.S. expansion, and slavery, and of colliding ideas of justice and faith. The different routes that led all those involved in the drama to the Pacific reveal the fullness of the paradox of freedom and slavery in America, so pervasive it could trap not just slaves and slavers but men who thought they were neither.
Copyright © 2014 by Greg Grandin