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Reading Melville in Post-9/11 America | The Nation

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Reading Melville in Post-9/11 America

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Hale Woodruff’s mural Mutiny on the Amistad (1939), courtesy of Talladega College, Alabama.

Herman Melville didn’t know that the West African slaves who inspired him to write his other, half-forgotten masterpiece, Benito Cereno, were Muslim. And when I first learned that they were, I didn’t think it more than a curiosity. I was, after all, planning to use the true incident behind the Melville story to open onto a larger history of freedom and slavery during the Age of Revolution, to which Islam seemed incidental. 

But the more research I did, the more the importance of Islam revealed itself—and not just to the historical events Melville fictionalized. No one knows how many Muslims were among the 12.5 million Africans brought in chains across the Atlantic. Some scholars estimate as many as 10 percent. For centuries, they served as something like the New World’s secret sharers, its covert operators, a key but largely unacknowledged element in the making of what the historian Edmund Morgan, decades ago, called the defining “paradox” of American history: the paradox of freedom and slavery.

Benito Cereno is a true story. Not true in the way Moby-Dick is true; that book was based as much on King Lear as it was on the actual stoving of the whale ship Essex. In contrast, 1855’s Benito Cereno is taken wholly from an event described in the 1817 memoirs of Amasa Delano, a luckless New England sea captain: one day in late February 1805, while on an unsuccessful seal-hunting expedition in the Pacific waters off the coast of Chile, Delano’s ship, the Perseverance, came upon a Spanish cargo vessel called the Tryal. It was in bad shape, carrying seventy or so West African men and women who, weeks earlier, as they were bound for Lima to be sold, rose up and seized the ship. They slaughtered most of the crew, along with the trader taking them to Peru, and ordered its captain, Benito Cerreño, to return them to Senegal. 

Cerreño stalled. He sailed first up and then down the coast, finally running into the Perseverance. The rebels picked up their boarding axes and made ready to fight. But Babo, the leader of the rebels, had an idea. They let Delano come on board and acted as if they were still slaves. Babo’s son Mori, who understood Spanish, pretended to be Cerreño’s devoted servant to keep watch on the two captains. He listened closely as Cerreño told Delano a story about storms, doldrums and fevers to account for the fact that there were no other Spanish officers on the vessel.

Remarkably, the trick worked. For about nine hours, an oblivious Delano—an experienced mariner in the middle of his third voyage around the world and a distant ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—remained convinced that the West Africans were still enslaved and that he, having provided them with food and water, was their savior. 

Melville left no letters or diaries, or at least none yet found, that reveal his thoughts when he read Delano’s memoir, or what moved him to fictionalize his experience on board the rebel-held ship. 

But it isn’t difficult to see what attracted him to the story. Aside from its sheer audacity, what is most fascinating about the ruse is the way it exposes a larger falsehood on which the whole ideological edifice of slavery rested: the idea that slaves were loyal and simple-minded, in possession of neither independent lives nor 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 (dim-witted and faithful). 

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It is tempting to imagine the drama that played out on the high seas of the South Pacific as part of an epic clash of civilizations, centuries in the making. 

Amasa Delano, after all, was a liberal Christian, a new man of the American Revolution. He was born in the coastal Massachusetts community of Duxbury, a hothouse of natural-law republicanism. As a boy, he received his moral education from a series of ever more radical ministers who swept away the Calvinist gloom that had draped New England like a shroud since the early days of Puritan settlement. Like many of his generation, Delano was raised in optimism and taught that certain truths were self-evident: men were both in charge of their destiny and capable of perfection; moral authority was rooted within the individual; and the natural condition of humanity was freedom. Delano believed himself born free, not just free of slavery but of the master-slave relation itself, in all its forms. It wasn’t the mystery of God and subservience to his will that would bring salvation; rather, “pure, unabused reason,” as one especially popular Duxbury minister preached, was the “suitable guide to bliss and glory.”

The West Africans, on the other hand, were mostly Muslim, probably Sufi Muslim (a fact Delano didn’t mention in his memoir, and therefore Melville didn’t know), a religion often portrayed as fatalistic. Its theologians and philosophers tend to define virtue not as individual emancipation but as the psychological and spiritual submission of the self to divine authority. Sufis in particular used slavery as an analogy for nurturing an intimate relation with Allah, of freeing oneself from worldly desire and submitting one’s will and being to God. “Let it be known,” wrote the eleventh-century Sufi theologian Abd al-Karim ibn Hawazin al-Qushayri, “that the real meaning of freedom lies in the perfection of slavery.”

In a way, giving themselves over is what Babo, Mori and the others did. 

Over the course of their nearly two-year ordeal, they used the Islamic lunar calendar to give meaning to their misery, to try to calm their fears by relating their sufferings to the unfolding of divine will. Watching the moon, they kept track of their movements around nearly half the world: first out of their homes somewhere in West Africa, across the Atlantic into Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and over the hypnotically flat pampas. They were about to begin a freezing climb up the ice-covered Andes, walking in a single-line coffle, necks chained together, in the shadow of the tallest mountain in the Americas, when Ramadan started. It was an extreme experience that must have collapsed their physical and spiritual worlds into one another, giving them the sense that they were actually approaching the absolute.

Within two weeks, they were in Valparaiso, Chile. They embarked quickly on the Tryal, and the holiest day of Ramadan fell when they were about six days out of port: Laylat al-Qadr—the Night of Power, or the Night of Destiny, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad. The event is described in the Koran: “Therein come down the Angels…. Peace!… This until the rise of morn!” The day marks the reconciliation of free will and predestination, reminding the faithful of Allah’s promise to deliver them from history’s sufferings. And on the eve of this day the West Africans chose to seize the ship, execute most of the sailors and their slaver, and demand to be returned home. 

Then, to pull off their deception, they had to abandon the outward manifestations of the freedom they had won with their rebellion, a freedom that in any case was proving to be false: it was slipping away with each day they spent in the Pacific short on food and out of water. In order to inhabit their parts and trick Delano, they had to suppress their passions and appetites—literally so, as they were starving and thirsty—and take on the appearance of humble, inconsequential beings. They “perfected slavery.”

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