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Beyond the Black Atlantic: Pacific Rebellions and the Gothic in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”


While previous investigations of the black-white racial dichotomy in Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno” have taught us an incalculable amount, paying attention to the complex modalities of Orientalism, rebellion, and transpacific migration in the novella makes even more relevant previous analyses of the story’s engagement with transatlantic slavery and the Haitian Revolution in a global arena. This study proposes that Melville’s narrative of a transatlantic slave mutiny—punctuated by phantom Orientalist references to East Asia and the South Pacific—suggests the indispensable role that the Atlantic revolutions played in framing European and American imaginings of East Asia and the South Pacific. Melville’s employment of the gothic as an expression of incipient racial and cosmopolitan anxieties, along with his unique adaptation of the travelogue’s “prolonged promise” and temporality, expresses East Asia and the South Pacific as a foreboding source of racial alterity and links his East Asian–Pacific and African populations through an Orientalist frame. Conversely, Melville’s comparative juxtapositions of West African slaves and villainous Malay characters—figures associated in the antebellum US with Muslim origins—craft an alternative, cross-Islamic community identification for imperial resistance in his “strange history” of the Pacific. While postcolonial critics positively read Melville’s pluralistic collectivity in Moby Dick, Melville’s rebellious Malay phantoms in “Benito Cereno” and Moby Dick betray moments of Islamic racialism and the problems of a republic built on slavery and the imperialism of the Asia Pacific, as seen in the Philippine–American War and other future imperial endeavors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


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