Following our last post from a few weeks ago, today’s HHBlog post is in commemoration of Black History Month here in the United States. However, we at the Blog believe that it is important to expand our knowledge and understanding of the African Diaspora to regions in the Americas beyond the conventional scope of the United States or even Anglophone and Francophone North America. Today’s post is therefore in commemoration of two West African men, a father and son, named Babo (father) and Mori (son). For those who have read Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno or Greg Grandin’s academic text The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (2014), this history will be a familiar one.
Babo and Mori were two amongst many enslaved West Africans who were on board a slave ship, the Tryal, traversing the South Pacific towards Lima, Peru at the beginning of the nineteenth century. We know little about them – their lives before capture from Senegal and enslavement, their personal intimacies and thoughts – yet due to the events that transpired in 1804 and 1805, we in the academy know considerably more about their lives and desires than we do for the majority of the millions of enslaved Africans who were dispossessed of their homes and stolen to the Americas.
In 1804, as the Tryal was led to the Americas by Spanish sailors, Babo and Mori led a revolt on board the ship, killing their white captors save for a select few. Benito Cerreño, the Spanish owner of the ship and its captain, was kept alive and ordered by the West Africans on board to navigate the Tryal back to Senegal. Cerreño instead sailed back and forth along the coast of Chile hoping to be rescued, until they came across a New England seal ship, the Perseverance. When the captain of the Perseverance, Amasa Delano (distant relative of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) boarded the Tryal, Babo, Mori, and the other West Africans aboard the Tryal performed their own enslavement in order to not be found out. They quite literally created a theatre out of what they knew the white gaze would believe to be true – not what was true i.e. that enslaved Black people had revolted and were in control of the ship and of white men – and what the white gaze accepted as “natural” roles for Black people.
They held Cerreño captive at knifepoint for the better part of an entire day, all the while Delano attempted to help what he believed to be a Spanish ship in distress. As Cerreño was forced into playing the role he had previously had – as captain and slaver – the Black rebels on board acted out the roles of enslaved and docile West Africans, all while keeping a close eye on their audience Amasa Delano. At the end of the day, after spending hours upon hours with a desperate but silent Cerreño, Delano boarded his own away ship after having given provisions to the Tryal and made his way back to the Perseverance. But as he pulled away from the Tryal, Cerreño dove on to Delano’s boat and suddenly the obvious was made clear to Delano. Delano’s New England crew rained violence down upon the West African rebels aboard the Tryal, leading eventually to the ship’s capture and a trial against the West Africans, including Babo and Mori, that took place in 1805.
The events of this rebellion of enslaved West Africans was later dramatized by Herman Melville, where I first encountered it for a course on Blackness in Latin America. The genius rebellion, down from the violent assault on their captors/enslavers to the performance of enslavement for a white American audience, is a captivating story that reminds us of both the attempts at dehumanization enslavement created, and the resistance to this dehumanization that the African Diaspora engaged in throughout the entirety of this diverse history. Although we do not know exactly what Babo, Mori, and the other enslaved West Africans thought before or after their revolt, we know from their actions that they were determined to resist enslavement by any means necessary.
Grandin, Greg. The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. United Kingdom: Picador, 2015 .
Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. Charleston: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016 .