Study Guide

Benito Cereno Power

By Herman Melville

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First, the affair of the Spanish lad assailed with a knife by the slave boy; an act winked at by Don Benito. (68.181)

Captain Delano is basically compiling evidence of moments where the power structure was upended. 

"Master," said the servant, discontinuing his work on the coat sleeve and addressing the rapt Spaniard with sort of timid apprehensiveness […]

Babo's "apprehensiveness" could very well be real, if not his timidity. What's going happen if Cereno blows his cover?

[…] "now, master," and the steel glanced nigh his throat. (75.222)

Melville is all about the juxtaposition of power and weakness. Babo calling Cereno "master" is pretty rich, especially when he's wielding a blade.

No sword drawn before James the First of England, no assassination in that timid king's presence, could have produced a more terrified aspect than was now presented by Don Benito. (75.226)

Sounds like lots of powerful men quaked in fear of death. James the First was known to be a particularly shy guy.

On their way thither, the two captains were preceded by the mulatto, who turning round as he advanced, with continual smiles and bows, ushered them on […] (78.241)

Delano seems totally disarmed by all the smiling and bowing. Little does he know that he's just a sucker for people treating him like a powerful man.

Good fellows, thought Captain Delano, a little training would make fine sailors of them. (81.272)

Since Delano is so accustomed to power, he just assumes that people without it lack practical knowledge. That's a dangerous (and wrong) assumption to make.

Meanwhile, as if fearful that the continuance of the scene might too much unstring his master, the servant seemed anxious to terminate it. (86.309)

Babo exerts his influence over Cereno in a handful of unexpected ways. Here, he actually limits the sensations Cereno can experience.

He smote Babo's hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. (88.318)

Delano is physically more powerful than Babo in this moment, but he's also taking away Babo's symbolic power.

Like delirious black dervishes, the six Ashantees danced on the poop. (88.319)

To be honest, this quote has us stumped. Why would they dance in the moment when all is lost? Do you think this is one final celebration of their victory? Oh, and "poop" here is short for "poop deck," before you start making dirty jokes, first grade-style.

They were almost overborne, when, rallying themselves into a squad as one man, with a huzzah they sprang inboard, where, entangled, they involuntarily separated again. (91.333)

Before their final loss, the slaves band together again. Their power comes from the group.

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