Discuss the ways in which any two writers deal with the historical realities of slavery. Melville and Mark Twain

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Tamsin Christofides


EN557 19th Century American Literature

Dr Stafania Ciocia

Discuss the ways in which any two writers deal with the historical realities of slavery

Slavery was first brought to the Southern United States in 1619, with the invention of the Cotton Gin in 1793 there was a huge demand for slaves from many countries including the Caribbean and Africa to work on plantations.  At its peak roughly forty percent of the Southern population were slaves and it was not unknown to have a fifty percent mortality rate during the journey to ‘The New World’.  According to American laws at the time slaves were treated as property by their owners and could be bought and sold as easily and carelessly as livestock.  Slaves were sometimes allowed to marry and marriage was often imposed on them, this was not recognised by the state, however, and slave owners were free to split up couples and families as they pleased simply by selling them on to new owners.  Children born into slavery were raised until they were Twelve at which time they were sent to the fields to work from sunup to sundown; this would continue until they died or were set free.  Slaves were treated badly, beatings, rape and murder were not uncommon but unlike free Americans they had few rights and little to no access to education, healthcare or justice.  During this period in history there was a great deal of literature written about slavery, some pro slavery and some anti.  Many fought for years to abolish slavery in the Southern states and it was the succession of the Civil war and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863 that finally put and end to legal slave holding and trading.  This did not mean the end of slavery and plantation owners still used slaves, black people were not accepted into society and illegal slavery went on for many years.

Herman Melville was a prolific writer who wrote about his voyages at sea; he spent a large part of his early life at sea, visiting strange lands and even living amongst natives.  He became known later in his career as, ‘The man who lived among the cannibals’.  ‘Benito Cereno’ is a short story written by Melville that was included with his other works in ‘The Piazza Tales’.  The narrative gives an account of a Spanish ship transporting slaves; the slaves revolt and take over the ship killing most of the crew and the passengers.  The captain of The Batchelor’s Delight, Captain Delano sees the ship is in danger and offers to help; he boards the slave ship and spends the day observing the strange behaviour of the crew.  Captain Delano realises that the slaves have revolted and has his own men overpower them and take control of the ship again.  The major theme of the story is good vs. evil, the good being the good-natured Captain Delano and his crew against the murderous black slaves.  Captain Delano who offers aid to the struggling ship is the personification of integrity and inherent goodness and the slaves who seize the San Dominick are depicted as evil cold blooded murderers, they torture and murder Alexandro Arander before barbarically displaying his bones on the bowsprit.  The story would appear to be a pro-slavery novel describing and revealing the nature of the ‘untamed black race’, but on reading further it becomes clear that Melville is not criticising the ‘foreigners’ but is commenting on the culture of the white man.

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Much of the plot centres on the destructive power of evil.  The question is why do the slaves revolt?  They are not after money, ransom or treasure they are fighting for freedom.  The actions that are recounted in the declaration at the end are of a hideous nature; they kill for the sake of killing and it is seen that some of the slaves commit random acts of violence on the Spaniards held captive.  Babo is the ringleader of the revolt and he constantly threatens Benito Cereno who is in continuous fear, by the time Captain Delano finds him ...

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