- Oct 2018
But the principal relic of faded grandeur was the ample oval of the shield-like stern-piece, intricately carved with the arms of Castile and Leon, medallioned about by groups of mythological or symbolical devices; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked.
Robert Shore, The San Dominick, 1965 Something similar to the "ample oval" appears to be on the visible side of the ship, just in front of the stern. The figures are, unfortunately, indiscernible.
The iconography lends itself to multiple interpretations, and stands out as one of the few overtly ekphrastic passages in the novella. The subjugated figure in the image is not described as human or animal, simply as "writhing" - struggling against the satyr's dominance. This figure would seem to represent both an allegory for and a critique of slavery -- the prostrate figure being the slave. However, the "dark satyr" in Greco-Roman mythology is a hybrid man-beast, associated with what in Melville's time would be considered animalistic passions including revelry, madness, violence, and lust. Given Delano's repeated, obtuse descriptions of slaves in animalistic terms, this is one clue that suggests the satyr represents, if not the slaves themselves, then the reversal of power that has taken place on board the ship. It may also reflect the institution of slavery, which, regardless of who is master and who is slave, is fundamentally immoral and based on violence. This ambiguity is heightened by fact that both figures are masked; neither Delano nor Melville's readers are able to see their faces, and, this would suggest, their races.
while upon the tarnished headboards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship’s name, “SAN DOMINICK,” each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust;
The extended rebellion of enslaved people on Santo Domingo (in English, Saint Dominick) began in 1791 and lasted until 1804. Known today as the Haitian Revolution, the revolt remains the only "slave revolt" ever to result in the establishment of a free state. Per Wikipedia, "It is now widely seen as a defining moment in the history of racism in the Atlantic World."
At this moment the young sailor’s eye was again fixed on the whisperers, and Captain Delano thought he observed a lurking significance in it, as if silent signs, of some Freemason sort, had that instant been interchanged
Freemasonry was and still is a secretive fraternal order originating in the British guild system; it took root in the American colonies and was popular before and after the American Revolution. (George Washington and other founders are frequently cited as "famous Freemasons.") Its relationship to both the church and state has historically been a subject of controversy (and mystification) and it remains a perennial hobby horse among conspiracy theorists fixated on the existence of one-world governments. "Brothers" are known to use a series of symbols and hand gestures to recognize and communicate with each other in public.
in the harbor of St. Maria–a small, desert, uninhabited island toward the southern extremity of the long coast of Chili.
Map of Santa Maria, 1700
Santa Maria is a possession of Chile, roughly 10 nautical miles from the mainland, and just south of the port town Concepcion. More recently the island was used as a penal colony for supporters of Chile's Salvador Allende after his government was overthrown by a US-sponsored coup.
Although Delano describes it as nothing more than a "desert, uninhabited island" it in fact has a well-documented history in the European colonization of South America, especially concerning the Dutch West India Company's conflicts with Spain in the late 16th century (note mentions of Santa Maria in Lane, pp. 73-77).
Note as well that by the conclusion of the narrative, the Saint Dominick does fulfill its intended journey from Valparaiso, Chile to Callao, a port just outside of Lima, Peru. (See map, contemporary with the composition of Benito Cereno.)
the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites;
This final gruesome image recapitulates the moral ambiguities and multiple power reversals in the narrative. Ostensibly serving as a warning to other slaves in Lima, it is an example of an old practice in European cultures of "piking" the heads of executed convicts and enemies of the state in the public square.* As an anticipatory corrective, the practice exemplifies the physical and psychological brutality of white Christian and Catholic slave-owning colonists.
Conversely, although Babo's body has been dispensed with in a most "un-Christian" manner, (unlike, at long last, his master's) his head -- that "hive of subtlety"-- embodies the colonists' capacity for barbarity and inhumane treatment of those who do not conform to the roles and rules maintaining order. Meeting "unabashed, the gaze of the whites," and addressing his ostensible superiors on their level (albeit voicelessly) Babo's open-eyed, disembodied head remains one of the most chilling images in the novella-- one that readers encounter last, and perhaps are more likely to remember. In this way Babo ironically has "the last word" although it is nevertheless a pyrrhic victory.
*An image from the French Revolution demonstrates how the aristocracy was made to epitomize "enemies of the state," when the French people redefined the body politic, turned the tables of power, and marched with their rulers' heads on spikes.
Battered and mouldy, the castellated forecastle seemed some ancient turret, long ago taken by assault, and then left to decay. Toward the stern, two high-raised quarter galleries–the balustrades here and there covered with dry, tindery sea-moss–opening out from the unoccupied state-cabin,
Captain Delano's initial descriptions of the San Dominick, the initial descriptions of those on board, the ship's stasis in an extended calm (allegedly returning north from a voyage in the extreme southern region of the ocean -- near the South Pole), the alleged death of crew and passengers from lack of water, and the "strange fowl" accompanying the ship, are all reminiscent of passages in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner )(1798) - especially Parts 2-4. Rime was first published a year before the setting of Benito Cereno.
- Mar 2016