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).