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29 August 2007

"Benito Cereno" (1856) by Herman Melville, Chapter 1

To offer the barest bones of the historical background of this narrative, the United States had become an independent nation in 1783, and the transatlantic African slave trade was still legal in nearly all European, South American and North American nations in 1799.

Around 1823, Methodists and Quakers in England had begun politically agitating for the abolition of slavery, and in 1838 the British government abolished slavery in all its possessions and began using its Navy to suppress the Atlantic slave trade.

Slavery was not abolished in the southern half of the United States until the catastrophic Civil War (1861 - 1865).

This narrative takes place in the era when American ships, military and merchant, were ambitiously, effectively and agressively seeking out wealth, and shaping more favorable local conditions for acquiring wealth, much as their European predecessors had been doing for several centuries. Most of this worldwide sea activity sprang from Atlantic port cities and towns in New England.

Herman Melville served as a cabin boy and sailor aboard whalers and merchant vessels in the Atlantic, and sailed on several long voyages to the South Pacific.
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Benito Cereno

by Herman Melville

1 -- A SHIP

IN THE year 1799, Captain Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, in Massachusetts, commanding a large sealer and general trader, lay at anchor, with a valuable cargo, in the harbour of St. Maria -- a small, desert, uninhabited island towards the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili. There he had touched for water.

On the second day, not long after dawn, while lying in his berth, his mate came below, informing him that a strange sail was coming into the bay. Ships were then not so plenty in those waters as now. He rose, dressed, and went on deck.

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a grey mantle. Flights of troubled grey fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled grey vapours among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

To Captain Delano's surprise, the stranger, viewed through the glass, showed no colours; though to do so upon entering a haven, however uninhabited in its shores, where but a single other ship might be lying, was the custom among peaceful seamen of all nations. Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated excitement, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.

But whatever misgivings might have obtruded on first seeing the stranger would almost, in any seaman's mind, have been dissipated by observing that the ship, in navigating into the harbour, was drawing too near the land, for her own safety's sake, owing to a sunken reef making out off her bow. This seemed to prove her a stranger, indeed, not only to the sealer, but the island; consequently, she could be no wonted freebooter on that ocean. With no small interest, Captain Delano continued to watch her -- a proceeding not much facilitated by the vapours partly mantling the hull, through which the far matin light from her cabin streamed equivocally enough; much like the sun -- by this time crescented on the rim of the horizon, and apparently, in company with the strange ship, entering the harbour -- which, wimpled by the same low, creeping clouds, showed not unlike a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta.

It might have been but a deception of the vapours, but, the longer the stranger was watched, the more singular appeared her manoeuvres. Ere long it seemed hard to decide whether she meant to come in or no -- what she wanted, or what she was about. The wind, which had breezed up a little during the night, was now extremely light and baffling, which the more increased the apparent uncertainty of her movements.

Surmising, at last, that it might be a ship in distress, Captain Delano ordered his whale-boat to be dropped, and, much to the wary opposition of his mate, prepared to board her, and, at the least, pilot her in. On the night previous, a fishing-party of the seamen had gone a long distance to some detached rocks out of sight from the sealer, and, an hour or two before day-break, had returned, having met with no small success. Presuming that the stranger might have been long off soundings, the good captain put several baskets of the fish, for presents, into his boat, and so pulled away. From her continuing too near the sunken reef, deeming her in danger, calling to his men, he made all haste to apprise those on board of their situation. But, some time ere the boat came up, the wind, light though it was, having shifted, had headed the vessel off, as well as partly broken the vapours from about her.

Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him. Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters.

Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain -- a Spanish merchantman of the first class; carrying Negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another. A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king's navy, which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.

As the whale-boat drew more and more nigh, the cause of the peculiar pipe-clayed aspect of the stranger was seen in the slovenly neglect pervading her. The spars, ropes, and great part of the bulwarks looked woolly, from long unacquaintance with the scraper, tar, and the brush. Her keel seemed laid, her ribs put together, and she launched, from Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones.

In the present business in which she was engaged, the ship's general model and rig appeared to have undergone no material change from their original warlike and Froissart pattern. However, no guns were seen.

The tops were large, and were railed about with what had once been octagonal net-work, all now in sad disrepair. These tops hung overhead like three ruinous aviaries, in one of which was seen perched, on a ratlin, a white noddy, a strange fowl, so called from its lethargic somnambulistic character, being frequently caught by hand at sea. Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Towards the stern, two high-raised quarter galleries -- the balustrades here and there covered with dry, tindery sea-moss -- opening out from the unoccupied state-cabin, whose dead lights, for all the mild weather, were hermetically closed and caulked -- these tenantless balconies hung over the sea as if it were the grand Venetian canal. But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.

Whether the ship had a figure-head, or only a plain beak, was not quite certain, owing to canvas wrapped about that part, either to protect it while undergoing a refurbishing, or else decently to hide its decay. Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the sentence, "Seguid vuestro jefe" (follow your leader); while upon the tarnished head-boards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship's name, "SAN DOMINICK," each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust; while, like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull.

As at last the boat was hooked from the bow along toward the gangway amidship, its keel, while yet some inches separated from the hull, harshly grated as on a sunken coral reef. It proved a huge bunch of conglobated barnacles adhering below the water to the side like a wen; a token of baffling airs and long calms passed somewhere in those seas.
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The text of "Benito Cereno," by Herman Melville, published in 1856, is in the public domain. This html edition, prepared by Ken Roberts of Ontario, Canada, is also in the public domain. The section numbers and captions have been added for convenience, and were not in the original text.


Jim Olson said...

ooh! An Internet Serial! Just like stories in Harpers or in Life used to be. I can't wait for next month's issue.

Vleeptron Dude said...

Chapter 2 has now been posted.

This story demands the right to speak for itself, and I want to add nothing to it.

But I should say, or hint, that this is a tale of great significance to the special historical interests of your colleague and my pal Rev. Peter I***.

Jim Olson said...

Yes, I think I remember why.

Tell me, is it true that the aforementioned cleric is conducting services in the Parish Hall because the ceiling in the main Sanctuary has been deemed unsafe?

Vleeptron Dude said...

Yup, el trutho. Plaster been falling down from the ceiling. Big Gazoo article about it couple of weeks ago, I'll try to see if I can fetch it for you.

Oh, also the magnificent organ's been completely disassembled and stored temporarily while the repair work goes on.

I *so* hope (and even pray ... and u know how Halley's Comet a thing that is for moi) that the pen-knife initials carved in the organ room wood by the bellows pump boys of the pre-electric 19th century survives all this. Maybe I'll try to bribe Peter with a tiny contribution to the repair fund, contingent on saving the belllows boys' initials.

Jim Olson said...

Yah, if they are taking down the Organ, Bill Czelusniak is doing it, and he is great about preservation. The Organ will be back...taking them down like that offers the opportunity to do significant repair and restoration work that is hard to do in situ. Repairs to the leathers around the bellows will be essential, and some of the repairs are essential now that it has been disassembled.