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essays

Mar 1, 1980

Melville on Slavery

Melville reflected literary Young America’s hopes that a culture of republicanism and democracy could serve all individuals.

M.E. Grenander
State University of New York at Albany

“Benito Cereno and Legal Oppression: A Szaszian Interpretation.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 2, no. 4(Winter 1978):337–342.

We can illuminate the meaning of Herman Melville’s novella on the evils of slavery, Benito Cereno (1855), by considering Dr. Thomas Szasz’s insights on various forms of legal oppression, particularly his insights on American slavery and its “Psychological consequences for slave, slaveholder, and abolitionist.”

Melville dared to write Benito Cereno a decade before the Civil War to confront its audience with the realities of the legally and socially approved institution of slavery. The plot turns slavery upside down and depicts whites, for a time, as slaves of a band of African slaves. Transported as chattle on a South American slaver, San Dominick, the blacks have successfully mutinied, killed some whites, and now hold others hostage. The Chilean captain, Dom Benito Cereno, had previously and uncritically taken slavery for granted. His own reversed role as a helpless slave forces him to confront the true horror of human slavery. The black mutineers are eventually quelled but Cereno’s awakened psyche cannot now live with the moral outrage of human bondage and he wastes away.

The story depicts the nominally legal institution of slavery as a betrayal of humanity. The slaves commit the social crimes of mutiny and murder under their skillful leader Babo, but the society they threaten is one that has immorally institutionalized their oppression. Whereas Cereno comes to recognize the true evil of slavery, his foil, Captain Delano, blinded by a shallow optimism, fails to perceive the nature of Cereno’s moral distress after his rescue.

Dr. Szasz’s writings on human oppression help us understand the characters of the complaisant Captain Delano, the morally awakened Captain Cereno, and the slave Babo. Protected by a paternalistic justification for slavery, Delano indulges the slave master’s comforting stereotypes of the “merry Negro slave, happy in his bondage.” He is unconcerned with the ethical issue since the blacks seem a subhuman species. Bolstering the “normality” of such oppression are the legitimation given by economics and government laws protecting slavery.

Yet the master must live in constant fear of violence and revolt from such slaves as Babo. Perceiving his slavery as an oppressive relationship, Babo feels an obligation to revolt and emancipate himself and his fellows. To avoid internalizing his own degradation, the slave Babo is driven to plot a cruel revenge against his “master.” Evil institutions can pervert the ethical standards of even good men.

Melville’s Benito Cereno resembles Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest since both have the courage to attack strongly established legal oppression. Kesey’s novel indicts an often ignored modern version of slavery, the involuntary incarceration of mental patients by institutional psychiatry. Dr. Szasz allows us to be more sensitive to forms of legal oppression that continue to enslave humans today.