Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Context

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The American Renaissance

Herman Melville was part of the period of literature known as the American Renaissance, which encompassed writing emerging from American authors from 1830 to 1865 (coinciding with the end of the Civil War). The term was coined in the 20th century by the critic F.O. Matthiessen (1902–50). The American Renaissance is often divided into two extremes of content: optimistic works and pessimistic works. Writers such as Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) and Walt Whitman (1819–92) fall into the optimistic camp, while others such as Melville, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49), and Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) are considered to be on the pessimistic end. The work of the pessimistic writers often focuses on themes of doubt, trauma, ambiguous morality, and criminality. Optimistic writers often focused on spirituality, nature, and the creative imagination.

Writers of the American Renaissance were much influenced by the Romantic writers and artists of Europe in the first half of the 19th century. The American Renaissance also marked an interest in American national identity and imaginative expression. Many of the prominent writers of this movement came from a community of wealthy New England literati who were well versed in European literature and art and who worked to create an American version of literature that was based upon the traditional European canon. Included in this group were writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82) and Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–94). Another important group of writers during this period are the transcendentalists. These writers, also based in New England, occupied a very different space in the movement from their other New England counterparts. The transcendentalists sought to create a body of literature that did not model itself on its European counterparts but instead built itself on the idea of a national culture that was new and independent from its European origins. The writings of this group—which included Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott (1799–1888, father to writer Louisa May Alcott), and Margaret Fuller (1810–50)—openly advocated for social, religious, and political reforms. They were also outspoken abolitionists. All of the beliefs that were central to Transcendentalism also deeply influenced the writings of this group.

Besides these two major groups of writers, many others played an important role in the development of this period of literature. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96), author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was an extremely influential writer of this period, and though she was not a part of the transcendentalist group, she was an outspoken abolitionist who influenced the abolitionist movement profoundly with her work. Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe were both writers outside the New England circles, with very different beliefs from groups such as the transcendentalists; their work helped characterize this period in American literature. Melville's work is full of adventure that gives his readers a window into nautical life at the time. His works Moby-Dick and Benito Cereno fall in the period from 1850–55, which critic F.O. Matthiessen called an "extraordinarily concentrated moment of literary expression."

Late 18th- and Early 19th-Century African Slave Trade

Melville's story Benito Cereno takes place in 1799 and concerns the transport of slaves between Spain and South America. The transatlantic slave trade was in its final years at this point, having begun in the early 16th century. The African slave trade itself was part of what is referred to as the "triangular trade," in which goods were shipped to Africa from European countries, then slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas, and finally coffee and sugar were transported from the Americas back to Europe.

While in some cases Europeans ventured into African countries to capture slaves, the majority of Europe preferred to purchase slaves from Africans who had captured and transported them to the coast. People captured and enslaved during tribal wars in various African countries would be brought to the coast on foot, over hundreds of miles, to be sold to European slave traders. Large numbers of people died on that initial journey to the coast, and many more died in the inhumane conditions on slave ships.

By the time Melville wrote Benito Cereno, much of the European world, including Spain, had banned slave trading, though not slavery itself. Historically, there were instances in the early 1800s of slaves revolting and taking over their transport ships, and it is likely these instances inspired Melville. However, it is important to note that while the transport of slaves was legal in the time period in which the story is set, it was made illegal by Britain, the United States, and Spain by 1811.

A revolt aboard the Amistad in 1839 is one of the most well-known instances of this, wherein 53 illegally purchased African enslaved persons mutinied, killing the captain of the ship. They kept the navigator alive and tried to force him to sail them to Sierra Leone, but the navigator sailed the ship up the coast of North America where it was stopped by the U.S. Navy on Long Island. The case went to trial, and eventually it was ruled that because the slave trade was at this point illegal, the Africans were the victims of kidnapping and were justified in their bid for freedom. The survivors were returned to Sierra Leone.

Another such slave revolt, this one unsuccessful, provided the direct material used by Melville in writing his story Benito Cereno. This revolt took place in 1805 aboard a Spanish ship called the Tryal and is recounted by the real Captain Amasa Delano (1763–1823) in his memoir A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817).

South America in the Late 18th Century

By the late 18th century much of South America had been colonized by a combination of Spanish and Portuguese colonists, who brought with them or imported a large population of enslaved Africans as well. Economically, Latin America as a whole experienced a tremendous period of growth during the 1700s, causing smaller coastal cities like Buenos Aires in Argentina and Caracas in Venezuela to become large and busy urban ports. At this time much of South America was colonized and controlled by the Spanish government, with the exception of Brazil, which was a Portuguese kingdom. By the end of the 18th century, however, all of South America was headed for independence from their original colonial governments. In the first three decades of the following century, all the relative countries of South America would gain their independence from Spain, and Brazil would establish itself as autonomous nation from Portugal in a much less bloody transfer of power.

Slavery was still legal in most of South America in the late 18th century. Latin America, as a whole, imported the most African slaves of all the Americas, causing the region to have the largest population of Africans outside of Africa. In contrast to many other slave nations of the West, Latin America had over a million free black people by the late 1700s. In Melville's Benito Cereno, when the mutineers ask Cereno if there are any free black communities they might sail to, the truth is there were probably quite a few in existence that Benito Cereno was simply unaware of.

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