This quote by Lois McMaster Bujold, “if power was an illusion, wasn’t weakness necessarily one also?,” portrays the power struggle of the Spanish ship. Delano had thought that the Africans were weak and lesser-than and Benito and the other Spaniards were in power, but he soon discovered that the power is reversed. The power is indeed an illusion. In Herman Melville’s short story, Benito Cereno, an American, Captain Delano, boarded a Spanish ship. He then pointed out peculiar things occurring on the ship, but passed them off without much thought. He ended up missing the fact that the ship had been taken over by the Africans who were headed to be slaves in America. The Captain of the Spanish ship, Benito Cereno, had a servant who was actually there to watch Cereno. The servant, Babo, plants many clever signs to try to trick others into thinking that nothing is wrong. One symbol he uses is the lock and the key. Babo, the mastermind of the ship takeover, uses this symbol to portray power in favor of Cereno.
Throughout the time that Delano was on the Spanish ship, Babo was playing the part of a loyal servant. He stayed by Cereno’s side at every to convince Delano that the ship was in a normal state and to assure that Cereno played along. However, as Atufal, the slave in chains, came to Benito, Babo layed out the fake power hierarchy of the San Dominick. He pointed out the power by saying, “the slave there carries the padlock, but the master here carries the key” (13). By pointing out the obvious, Babo was trying to make Cereno’s ‘power’ seem apparent in hopes that Delano would not question the power of the ship. Delano noticed several abnormal occurrences, such as blacks attacking whites and the use of the Spanish flag as a rag, but he brushed them off. In this time period it was normal for whites to think of blacks as a weaker group. Delano was one who fell accustomed to this stereotype. He thought that the Africans were weaker and that there was no way that they could have stripped a white man of the power of his ship. Babo assisted this racism by acting as the weaker. In Glenn C. Altschuler’s literary criticism entitled “Whose foot on whose throat?” he states “Melville also realized the stupidity of the stereotype of the Negro.” Altschuler is saying that Melville showed Delano’s racism to mock the average American’s view on blacks at that time. Melville is making the statement that whites underestimated blacks. He uses Babo and Delano as his examples. Babo intends to deceive Delano with obvious symbols of power. He continued to talk about the lock and key in layman’s terms. To assure that Delano fully understood the significance of the lock and key, Babo says, “So, Don Benito- padlock and key- significant symbols, truly” (13). This is Babo’s way of assuring that his thought process for this symbol of power is crystal clear. He phrases his words as “significant symbols” to further convince Delano that his gut feeling, whites are more powerful than blacks, is right. Babo used a symbol that is very easy to understand, even for Delano who had proven to be very dense.
Also, Atufal came to Benito draped in many chains. “An iron collar was about his neck, from which depended a chain, thrice wound his body; the terminating links padlocked together at a broad band of iron, his girdle” (11). This description is meant to further show weakness in comparison to Benito, Atufal is draped in an unnecessary number of chains. By wrapping chains all around him, it shows that Benito should theoretically have a lot of power compared to Atufal. This would be a way for Benito to make an example of Afutal and an excuse to show just how much Captain Cereno was capable of. Forcing someone to beg for pardon shows power and forces the beggar to be the weaker person, the one without pride. By having a slave come up to Benito for an opportunity to beg for a pardon was just another of Babo’s plans to portray Benito as the captain and to not raise more suspicions of Delano.
The slaves aboard the Spanish ship used the symbol of the lock and key to demonstrate that Don Benito held the power as to not raise suspicions that the slaves had taken over. All in all, the use of the lock and key made a statement of racism. Delano automatically assumed that the whites had the power because he thought of the Africans as weaker and inhuman. Due to his assumption, it was easier for the Africans to trick him. Using the lock and key, Babo was able to symbolize what should be the hierarchy of the ship. The symbol of the lock and key was used to demonstrate power and to trick Delano into continuing to believe that Benito held the power.