There are three major interpretations of the slave in literature: the good human being who is forced to live their live as a slave, the slave who’s mind, body and soul are broken because of slavery, and the slave who’s mind is twisted and becomes a monster because of the institution of slavery. These views of slavery are prevalent in abolitionist literature because they focus on the evils of slavery rather than the evils of the men who support slavery. In Fredrick Douglas’s “The Heroic Slave”, Douglas presents the reader with Madison Washington: a good man and a loving father and husband. In Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno one is presented with the figure of Babo: a demented and twisted individual who is willing to do anything to regain his freedom. These two images of slavery are used because a writer can show both that slaves are human and legitimize their “evil” deeds as being forced by the institutions of slavery.
Madison Washington represents the human face of a slave: his every attribute reflects the fear abolitionists felt when faced with the images of Nat Turner. Washington is presented as being “[t]all, symmetrical, round, and strong [with an] appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect [and a voice] full and melodious” (28). Later, he is shown to be a good Christan man who, after attaining his freedom, risks his own life to free his family from captivity. He is always presented as being in command of himself, eloquent, and a leader of men. This melodramatic point-of-view leaves the reader with no choice but to sympathize with Madison Washington and by extension all good people who happened to have been ill-fortuned enough to be born both black and into slavery.
While one can feel pity for Madison, slave characters like Babo illicit no sympathy for themselves, but they raise philosophical questions about the effects of slavery on the individual. Melville never suggests that Babo was ill-treated or abused as a slave, and only describes him as a “small Negro Senegal [who spent] some years among the Spaniards” (93). It is obvious from the story that Babo is vastly intelligent which begs the question: why should someone as intelligent as Babo be confined to an institution of slavery and what happens to such an individual? Melville answers both parts of the question by stating resolutely that such a mind would not be held within an cage no matter how gilded, and that one such as Babo, while being moral to a point, would quickly leave his morals behind to achieve his freedom.
Babo does have some good qualities aside from his intelligence. If we can accept the word of Delano even when he was a captive Babo was instrumental in “pacifying his more ignorant brethren, when at intervals tempted to murmurings” (46). This interpretation of Babo is further illustrated when during the deposition it is revealed that the “Negresses of age” had to be restrained so they could not have “tortured to death, instead of simply killing, the Spaniards slain by the command of the Negro Babo” and that Babo “with his own hand, committed no murder” (102). Babo was twisted enough by slavery that he had the bones of Don Alexandro mounted on the ship’s bow, but he was not so far gone that he would treat the whites as they treated slaves.
While Babo is not entirely corrupted by slavery, he is twisted enough that he, personally, is beyond pity; however, with his actions he shows how the institution of slavery can twist even the most intelligent mind and force it into doing brutish things. Madison Washington represents an attempt by abolitionists to avoid the Nat Turner stereotype of the slave, but the character of Babo embraces this stereotype and Melville simultaneously condemns the actions taken while he shows that individuals such as Nat Turner are heavily influenced and corrupted by slavery itself, so that only by withdrawing individuals with such proclivities from the institutions of slavery, can one be safe from their innate internal rage on a widespread basis.
Superficially, Cereno is sick with a fever, but one can also read between the lines “only the sour heart that sour sickness breeds made [Cereno] serve Babo so; cutting Babo with the razor “ (77). Quite obviously the cut is self inflicted by Babo; however, had Babo been a normal slave the same incident would have caused a similar reaction from his master. The “sour sickness” that Babo speaks of is not entirely Cereno’s illness, but the institution of slavery that demands one exert his control over the entirety of another’s being. This interpretation of Cereno’s supposed action is illustrated by Captain Delano’s remark that, “this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!” This comment can be expanded to encompass both Babo’s “punishment” and Babo’s actual actions aboard the ship.
Abolitionist literature used characters such as Madison Washington and Babo to question the political and philosophical effects of slavery. While the former is a respectable individual who the reader can feel sympathy for, the latter is vile and demented, but forces the reader to question the aspects of slavery that would twist such an individual.