The Tryal, setting out in December from Valparaiso in southern Chile, to Callao, a coastal town west of Lima, Peru, was the scene of a violent rebellion of slaves, who murdered their owner and some crew members, then forced the captain, Don Benito Cereno, to pilot them to Senegal, a French republic on the west coast of Africa. The cabal ended seven weeks later after the deposed captain leaped into Delano’s supply ship to petition the American’s help in freeing his ship. To assure Delano’s cooperation, Cereno offered half the worth of his cargo, an enticement sure to please the American crew, who had worked eighteen months with little to show for their efforts. After a pitched battle, Delano returned the Tryal to Don Benito Cereno’s command.
While Melville owed much to Delano’s autobiography, his own reworking of the bare bones of the story produced a complex and masterful tale. Like Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” and Hawthorne’s prefatory chapter in The Scarlet Letter, the convention of an earlier source affords him a touch of realism on which to build. Subtle original developments, particularly the tense shaving scene which pits master against vengeful, razor-wielding slave, reveal Melville’s immersion in the psychology of the real event and his ability to enliven history with stark dramatization. The unanswered questions that remain at the story’s end are pure Melville.