ENGL 254: Nation
In Benito Cereno, Captian Delano describes Don Benito as being a "capricious commander" and then reflects, "but as a nation-continued he in his reverries-these Spaniards are all an odd set; the very word Spaniard has a curious, conspirator, Guy-Fawkish twang to it. And yet, I dare say, Spainards in the main are as good folks as any in Duxbury, Massachusetts" (36). This assessment comes on the heals of Delano observing Cereno's inconsistent handling of black slaves on his ship. He entertains the cultural differences between Spanish and American nations, namely language here, but then comes around to classifying Spaniards as "good folks." These expressions of difference and commonality relate to a sense of nation-belonging that Raymond Williams labeled a "structure of feeling" or an emergent sentiment that is not easily articulated (166). In his assessment of Benito, there are differences of language and cultural expression that are outside Delano's "structure of feeling," yet there are also areas that seem to mirror his American sensibilities. As Alys Eve Winbaum points out in Keywords, some theorists, in opposition to nationalism, believe the idea of a nation coalesces through ideological forces that offer the pretense of being "natural" but are, in fact, driven by self-interested capitalistic and imperialist goals (166). Like American and Spain, Delano finds ideological common ground with Benito in slavery. Delano characterizes Spaniards as "good folks," but his real intention is to differentiate himself and Benito from the black slaves on the ship. Nation also provides a locus for human rights. When Cugoano writes of "the common rights of nature" (9) he understands these rights in terms of nations that respect one another and retain some level of autonomy.
Weinbaum also notes that in the nineteenth century debates centered around how national identities formed out of a self-consolidation that was dependent on both embracing and persecuting individual differences, especially those rooted in race (165). In the Heroic Slave, the first mate of the slave ship headed for New Orleans says, "It is quite easy to talk of flogging niggers here on land, where you have the sympathy of the community, and the whole physical force of the government, State and national, at your commmand; and where, if a negro shall lift his hand against a white man, the whole community, with one accord, are ready to unite in shooting him down" (227-28). Here the term "national" modifies "government" and characterizes the self-consolidation of a large aggregate population of white people through the persecution of black slaves. The community would come together, the first mate emphasizes, to put down the negro slave. Here also, the term "community" intensifies the notion that full-belonging in state and nation was reserved for the white citizen. It is precisely against this logic that David Walker rails. Although Walker invokes "the Coloured Citizens of the World," his concerns are more topically related, in that they address the problems faced by black slaves in America. For Walker, nation is not about origins (indeed, he critiques this notion); rather, nation is about labor and history. Nonetheless, in "Benito Cereno" Babo wants to return to Africa and uses racial stereotypes to dupe Europeans. A most interesting scene is the shaving scene, which juxtaposes the threat of a knife to the throat with the image of a folded flag.
The Heroic Slave and Benito Cereno both offer tales of slaves who abide by one of our nation's founding principles-"Live free or Die." In The Heroic Slave, Madison crys, "Liberty I will have, or die in the attempt to gain it"(178). Later, the mate on the ship Madison overtakes says, "It is not that his principles where wrong in the abstract; for they are the principles of 1776" (238). While not using the word "nation" specifically here, Douglas conflates slave oppression with British imperial oppression. Similarly, the slaves in Benito Cereno risk life and limb in their taking of the San Dominick and their subsequent battle to defeat Delano's men and escape slavery. Both these tales dilute the ability of white Anglo-Americans to maintain an emotional detachment from slavery by forcing them to view it in relation to oppression they not-so-long ago felt themselves.
Transatlantic literature, "Benito Cereno" included, invokes the concept of oceanic travel. What is the position of the ocean in relation to nation, as viewed from an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century context? The transatlantic is arguably a liminal space, one reflecting displacement and cultural contact. How, then, are we to understand transatlantic literature? Georg Lukacs, for one, traces the roots of the novel to its connection to Western nation-building. Can the novel exist outside of the nation, setting aside national agendas? In terms of Benito Cereno, this raises the question of genre. The text is possibly a novella, possibly a short story, possibly a historical sketch.
The ship Captain Delano watches in the distance enters the scene with no sign of national identity, it "showed no colors" (2.) Colors are used on naval ships to identify their national origin. Consequently, seafarers who don't display them on top of their vessels become strangers to the maritime world at first. The existence of unidentifiable ships often complicated the maritime exchange between the nations as those contacts were frequently marred with grim tragedies of kidnapping, hostage-taking, and pirates. The absence of colors, however, can also be an articulation of the multinational dimension of the ship's population. In its role as a 'Negro transportation-ship, the slaver 'SAN DOMINIK' becomes the ship of many nations.
The relationship between ship Captain Don Benito and his slave Babo somewhat shifted from master/ slave to friendship. "Sometimes the Negro gave his master his arm… that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the Negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion" (8.) As Captain Delano tries to lend his support onboard the SAN DOMINIK, the verbal exchange between him and the hosts is emblematic of the convergence of nations between American, Hispanic, and African. This national diversity is also made possible by the oversea rehabilitation of Babo, even when he claims his lower status before his master. Captain Delano is impressed by the slave's attitude: “Don Benito, I envy you such a friend; slave I cannot call him. As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other" (13.)