The story "Benito Cereno" is one that puts the reader in the position of making sense out of total chaos. This is done literally in the beginning when Delano steps onto the San Dominick; and is done later when the reader is supposed to figure out who was good and who was evil. The evil in this story is not easy to pick out, due to the timeframe that the reader is allowed to know about and the point of view that the story is told from. What Melville is saying about evil, in this story, is that situations make one evil and that evil is not always so apparent. Melville shows the latter by use of point of view, and does the former through the revelations that occur in the court testimony. The idea is shown slowly through the story and is made to come out of the chaos, but even at the end the reader is still made to dig for his/her own opinion.
The literal idea of black and white is obvious; there are black slaves and white traffickers. The figurative use is another story: black connotes evil and the system of slavery is an evil one. The slaves who are made subject to this cannot be evil in that condition; in other words, they have no power to be evil. Because the slaves overrun the ship they now have the chance to be evil; they have taken the power and can now seek retribution.
In the opening scene the reader is thrown into a chaotic mess of a story. The cargo, namely slaves, is all over the ship; which is something one would not expect when a ship is transporting slaves. The idea of evil is not introduced until later on. Evil is not main point in the story until the transcripts. Cereno is not an evil man but the wrong man at the wrong time. Delano is a man with honor, who does the wrong thing for the right reason. His honor and sense of duty take him back to the ship to get it back for Cereno. He does get the slaves, he captures, them and does not allow them to escape. The evil is the time that they are in and in the way the story is told through the white perspective. If the reader were given the horrors of the slaves' journey as a direct part of the story perhaps all the characters would take on a new persona, and the evil would not be so difficult to figure out.
The individuals involved all believe that they are not doing evil, they are
doing their jobs. They all have something to get done. I believe that Melville is
saying that evil breeds evil. The fact is that slavery is evil and it is black and that
in the confusion of any situation; one can lose sight of what is right and what is
wrong. Transcription of your problems from the same race for the sake of
revenge is still not right.
The use of black and white in regard to the revolt can be seen in the way the revolt unfolds. One of the first revolters is a mulatto, "that the mulatto steward, Francesco was of the first band of revolters." This shows that the revolt went from gray (a mulatto being black and white) to black. After Francesco starts the revolt the slaves can begin the full on mutiny. The face of it slides from white to Grey to black. The face of evil changed; initially the whites were engaging in the evil of slavery, the mulatto engaged in murder, then the blacks began the evils of torture and murder. Evil was taken on by each race.
To figure out the evil that the slaves were subject, to the reader must infer this from the trial transcripts that are shown later in the story:
"That the Negresses, of age were knowing to the revolt, and testified themselves satisfied at the death of their master, Don Alexandro; that, had the Negroes not restrained them, they would have tortured to death, instead of simply killing the SpaniardsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦."
This quote can make one infer that these women were treated horribly. And the few types of torture that would be peculiar to women would seem to be rape or perhaps the killing of their children. In this case the reader is shown that the scene they have just been shown is not one that occurred for no reason. These slaves were exactly; that they were slaves who had their freedom taken away and were made pieces of property. Something was done to these women to make them react so strongly to the Spaniards. This point shows that evil and mistreatment breed evil. The evil of slavery even without mistreatment breeds this sort of retaliation.
Benito Cereno is given a taste of slavery in this story he has been made to dance for the blacks. He has seen both sides of the coin, and being enslaved has scarred him forever as is shown in the last part of the book. Cereno has come to realize what happens when one is subjected to slavery; he has seen how he has treated these men himself and how the treatment he has inflicted feels.
Delano in this story is made to be a passive observer in the opening pages. He is the reader one who is confused by what he sees. As one reads on one can see that he himself engages in the evil of slavery, or at least he is willing to engage in it. When Delano says, "I should like to have your man here for myself- what will you take for him? Would 50 doubloons be any object?", he is showing that he is not above the evils of slavery. He has put a price on a man, and not even a very high price. Slavery to these people is a way of life; they do not put moral standards on it.
So where the evil lies is not easy to find. The blacks kill and so do the whites. One happened first but does that make one worse than the other? In the end Melville is saying that evil causes evil.