Nov 20, 2006

On Melville, Revolutions, and Sailors

Herman MelvilleI have been doing quite a bit of reading and thinking about Herman Melville of late; this is a work in progress reflecting that spent time.

Being over two centuries removed from the revolutionary Atlantic, the events of that period might seem distant to the modern reader, bombarded as we are with electronic reminders of the geopolitical affairs of the twenty-first century. For Herman Melville, writing in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the waves of revolution had not yet receded into the dim collective memory, nor had the process of patriotic mythologization fully distorted history. In Benito Cereno the author examined a slave rebellion set on board a Spanish merchant ship in 1799; in the following passage Melville described the narrator – Captain Amasa Delano – first viewing the beleaguered vessel:
Whether the ship had a figure-head, or only a plain beak, was not quite certain, owing to canvas wrapped about that part, either to protect it while undergoing a refurbishing, or else decently to hide its decay. Rudely painted or chalked, as in a sailor freak, along the forward side of a sort of pedestal below the canvas, was the sentence, "Seguid vuestro jefe" (follow your leader); while upon the tarnished head-boards, near by, appeared, in stately capitals, once gilt, the ship's name, "SAN DOMINICK," each letter streakingly corroded with tricklings of copper-spike rust; while, like mourning weeds, dark festoons of sea-grass slimily swept to and fro over the name, with every hearse-like roll of the hull.
It is not insignificant that Melville chose to change the name of the slave ship to that of the pre-revolutionary moniker of Haiti. The slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick in many ways mirrored the Haitian Revolution, as blacks in both cases rebelled against their white masters to overthrow a slave regime. In each case paternalistic whites struggled to understand the changes: how could these black rebels – believed to be from an “inferior” race – pull off acts that clearly required reason, political awareness, and cunning, all of which were supposedly the traits of “superior” peoples?

Left: 18th-century British gun ship known as a seventy-fourLeft: 18th-century British gun ship known as a "seventy-four" for the number of cannon it could fire

The revolutionary Atlantic was also the setting for Melville’s Billy Budd, which describes the events surrounding a seaman aboard the British ship Bellipotent in the year 1797. In the following passage Melville described the process by which Billy Budd became a sailor in the Royal Navy:
Such a cynosure, at least in aspect, and something such too in nature, though with important variations made apparent as the story proceeds, was welkin-eyed Billy Budd, or Baby Budd, as more familiarly under circumstances hereafter to be given he at last came to be called, aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet toward the close of the last decade of the eighteenth century. It was not very long prior to the time of the narration that follows that he had entered the King's Service, having been impressed on the Narrow Seas from a homeward-bound English merchantman into a seventy-four outward-bound, H.M.S. Bellipotent; which ship, as was not unusual in those hurried days, having been obliged to put to sea short of her proper complement of men.

In times of war the British navy was forced to impress sailors to sufficiently staff its warships, and the press gangs were a despised lot. Impressment meant a loss of freedom for sailors, and increased the risk of injury and death in a profession already dangerous. The issue of impressed sailors was also a source of confilct between the British and the newly independent United States, and was a factor in the renewed hostilities between the two nations in 1812.

While seemingly an archaic term to Americans - living as we do in the era of "An Army of One"- impressment was very much alive in the sailor lore that influenced Melville's writing, and was a fact of life for seamen in the revolutionary Atlantic.

No comments: