Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno (1855) observes a meeting between three symbolic leaders – Amasa Delano, Benito Cereno, and the slave Babo – who respectively represent America, colonial Europe, and the African diaspora at a juncture of encounter and confrontation. The depleted and aristocratic Cereno symbolises the Old World, whilst Delano is the quintessential (or stereotypical) American: a piratical Yankee entrepreneur, who charges for his “generous” offices to Cereno’s stricken ship on the grounds that he is “strictly accountable to his owners” and who then approves a swashbuckling assault upon the ship and a general looting of its “property” (272). The slave-owner Cereno’s sense of self-certainty is destroyed when he is mastered by his slaves; whilst, despite his apparent shrewdness, Delano assumes that the black slaves are “too stupid” to mutiny and he is consequently almost murdered (254). Babo is the most sympathetic of these three leaders, in the same sense that Iago is the most likeable character from Othello’s dramatis personae of bores and fools, simply by virtue of his superior wits.
In contrast to the prevailing racist stereotypes of the day, Babo is physically weak and even effeminate, whilst his intellect is overwhelmingly his distinguishing feature. He gets the better of his captors and – in desperate circumstances and against disheartening odds – he sustains the elaborate pretence which gulls Delano into assisting the slaves. Yet although it is claimed that Babo never kills, he apparently orders “every” murder on the boat; and despite of his cunning, many of the slaves suffer and die under his leadership (301). Although Babo is often depicted as restraining the slaves’ excesses, such as Francesco’s thoughtless scheme to poison Delano, it appears that he leads the slaves with their active consent. Suspecting treachery in Cereno, Delano reflects that if his “story was, throughout, an invention, then every soul on board down to the youngest negress, was his carefully drilled recruit in the plot: an incredible inference”; and yet it transpires that there may actually be such solidarity amongst the slaves under Babo’s leadership (245).
Most of the following analysis of Babo is entirely speculative. We lack any direct access to Babo, observing him firstly through a narrative which ironically reflects Delano’s racist views and describes what we find is literally a performance of devoted servility; and secondly through the text of a deposition cited from the proceedings of a vice-regal court in Lima, which is very much history written by the victors and excludes Babo’s own account of the mutiny. Facing death at the end of the tale, Babo, like Iago, decides that the wisest option is silence (although even if Babo had cooperated with the court, it is unlikely that it would have admitted his testimony as evidence) (95). One wishes for a few moments alone with Babo, to hear his authentic voice and learn his own ideas and feelings about the mutiny. One should add that Delano, Cereno, and indeed Babo were all once living people, and that the bare events of the novella were cribbed, unacknowledged and largely unaltered, from a travel narrative written by the “real” Captain Amasa Delano, which was published in 1817. A “Babo” numbers amongst the mutinous slaves in Delano’s narrative (although his son actually leads this rebellion), and Melville’s novella preserves the bias of this original source in excluding Babo’s voice and demonstrating how heroic black leaders are typically written out of racist colonial histories.
It may be claimed that Babo’s character is based upon those of infamous rebellious slaves such as Toussaint Louverture and Nat Turner, but the former was inspired by the ideas of the French enlightenment, and the latter claimed to have conversed with the Christian Holy Ghost. Babo appears to be untouched by ideas such as Christianity, and his rebellion is presented to us as a total rejection of Western civilisation. One may protest that Babo has a good command of Spanish but, as we have seen, he never “speaks” to Melville’s (Western) readers. His refusal to have anything to do with this Other is symbolised by his alienation from “white” technology – despite his keen wits, Babo cannot navigate the ship that has fallen into his hands. He orders Cereno to “carry them to Senegal”, failing to acknowledge that the San Dominick is in no condition to endure the six to eight week middle passage (285). Babo’s plan entails approaching the Cape of Good Hope in winter: which would probably finish off the San Dominick for good. But even if Babo could reach Senegal and consign his memory of Western civilisation to the past, he has been forever changed by his encounter with this world. Babo was a slave in his native Senegal, but the hierarchy of this society has been levelled by the slave traders, and now he has emerged as a leader and the African “king” Atufal is reduced to little more than his henchman.
There is something hopeless to Babo’s longing to return to Senegal, and he surely knows, or suspects, that the San Dominick cannot reach Africa without sufficient provisions or a skilled crew. Does he know, in his heart, that he is leading his people to death? Melville’s narrative never attributes the mutiny to a specific material need, and one may consequently presume that these “unfettered” slaves rebel purely for the sake of freedom (291). Babo himself is a valuable slave and will certainly not starve under slavery. Indeed, at one point in the novella, Delano toys with the idea of buying Babo, and it seems likely that the slave would have a jolly old time at the table of this “generous” master (248). In the history of slave narratives, one encounters those such as Olaudah Equiano, who, after years of patient compromise with slavery, were allowed to “buy” their freedoms. Yet one can speculate that many of the slaves aboard the San Dominick would meet a far less agreeable fate than Babo after being traded in Callao, and that Babo demonstrates solidarity with his people in putting their futures before his own personal wellbeing. Under slavery, the slaves have a (theoretical) insurance from death and serious injury in the form of the “white” world’s recognition that they have monetary value. Indeed, when the slaves are recaptured, they are not put to death (apart from Babo) because they are expensive stock. But freed and lead by Babo, they are at risk of a lingering death aboard a lost ship. Perhaps these questions do not occur to the slaves. Or maybe Babo – or all of the slaves in concert – choose freedom and the possibility of death, rather than a life of slavery.
Babo probably has no profound sense of homesickness for Africa, and would otherwise be merely leading a familiar people back to a familiar place, had not a sense of solidarity needed to emerge amongst the slaves in reaction to whatever they found so alien or traumatic about “white” civilisation. This solidarity is only “African” in the sense that the slaves need a destination to flee to, and an alternative sense of belonging and identity to that of their masters. Whilst observing Babo, the foolish Delano recites a list of what he considers to be inherent characteristics of “Negroes,” including “the African love of bright colors and fine shows”, but the mutinous slaves may demonstrate more of a sense of class consciousness than the shared and innate “racial” characteristics identified by Delano (265). The slaves find that they are equal as slaves – in that they are all equally enslaved – and they consequently form a sort of impromptu proletariat. Babo assaults the capitalist exploitation of the slave system and, in this sense, he is only secondarily a “black leader,” and foremostly a revolutionary hero. Despite this distinction, he remains one of the greatest black leaders in Western fiction.