In the past three years or so, we have witnessed the crumbling of the promise of a post-racial society, an idea introduced with the inauguration of Barack Obama as President in November 2009. The murders of unarmed young black men by a white vigilante, volunteer deputy, and sanctioned police officers, and the recent horrific massacre of African Americans at the AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina prayer meeting have exploded this myth. Certainly, the complications and conflicts that attend racial, ethnic, and cultural matters in this country are not new—indeed, they have been woven into the fabric of our national identity and have been concretized as the political issues of the day.
For historians who specialize in the study of America and the world, the disturbing developments that have shattered our national sensibilities recall similar racial, ethnic, and cultural complications and conflicts at the moment when American mariners first sailed into the wider world following the American Revolution. These events challenge us to re-examine the writings of those first global Americans, and to weigh their thoughts about race, at home and abroad, in an effort to find some deeper meaning about our society’s today. Certainly, we can trace the markings of racism and ethnocentrism in the journals and books of Samuel Shaw, Amasa Delano, Edmund Fanning, Harriett Low, and Robert Bennet Forbes. But, what we find here is curious; not racism or ethnocentrism in their modern guise, but often a conversation about race, embedded in offhand reflections, as Yankee travelers struggled to make sense of the diverse peoples--Muslims, Hindus, Confucians, Buddhists, and Parsees--they encountered.
One intriguing example can be found in the pages of Amasa Delano’s 1817 Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. As a Bostonian, we might take Delano’s views as a measure of northern ideas of black Americans, Africans, Chinese, Sumatrans, Indians, and other peoples of the world, as well as the emergent national (white) character. His American, or “true Yankee,” is opposed to tyranny and repression, whether in Peru or China. Yet, his views of the Other are complicated.
In April 1791, Delano landed at Batavia, and found that the capital of the Dutch East Indies hosted a remarkably cosmopolitan population of some 200,000 Chinese, Japanese, Africans, and indigenous Malays. His description incorporated a wide range of opinion. The Chinese shopkeepers and customs officials were “enemies to idleness,” but “deceitful to the last degree.” The Javanese would “apply themselves” in farming and shipbuilding. The Amboynese constructed elegant houses with split cane windows “very neatly wrought in different figures.” At times, others seemed to violate the republican principles that Delano extolled. He found Malaysian peoples “notoriously treacherous” and “void of morals.” By June, he had reached the Palau islands and found the people there were specimens of “interest, cordiality and happiness,” a “truly amiable people.” They demonstrated a blitheful curiosity and even “lively sympathy,” particularly their King, Abba Thulle, a figure of “wisdom and benevolence.”
One incident, in particular, stands out in his Delano’s Narrative that complicates his facile construction of the American national character. The encounter with the Spanish slave ship Tryal, under Captain Benito Cereno, would bring to the surface fundamental contradictions within the persona of the “true Yankee.” On the morning of 20 February 1805, after two months of cruising the Pacific shoreline and collecting seal furs, Delano’s Perseverance was sailing in light airs when the watch sighted a ship that “acted very awkwardly.” Ascertaining that she was a Spanish slave ship, the Tryal, and that she was in trouble, Delano sent out his boats, “well manned, and well armed,” to recapture the slaver. He brought the Tryal into Conception six days later, having provided the Spanish crew “every possible kindness.”
Delano’s tale of the Tryal, festooning the newspapers of the day, was presented through the voice of the philosophical world citizen. Throughout 1806 and 1807, readers could find versions of the story, as well as letters from Delano, the Spanish Consul in Boston, and the Spanish Minister Plenipotentiary in the Newburyport Herald and Salem Gazette; Portsmouth Oracle; the Vermont Centinel (Burlington); New York’s Mercantile Advertiser, Public Advertiser, Republican Watch-Tower, and Spectator; the Democratic Press and Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser of Philadelphia, and Alexandria’s Daily Advertiser and Richmond’s Enquirer. The Perseverance and crew hailed from New England, but the journals constructed the “humane and spirited exertions of [Delano] and his brave crew . . . in the Pacific Ocean” as an American enterprise, carried out by an “American ship.” For most readers, also, the Yankee values that were celebrated--the King’s gift of a “Golden Medal” and “Tribute of Respect’-- redounded to the credit of Yankees from across the country. Significant as tokens of European acceptance, Delano applauded the “kind and generous treatment” and “most sincere friendship and benevolence” he received from Spanish officials. The story resonated with an American public that applauded acts of heroism by their countrymen, especially for those who operated on a global stage, and decades later, it would attract the attention of Herman Melville, who adapted Delano’s account for his most notable short story. [i]
Yet, in describing the American as a liberator of disadvantaged peoples and in using the Spanish Pacific as a setting, Delano was curiously indifferent to the plight of the Tryal’s human cargo. Instead, he accepted the Spanish assessment of the mutiny as “those heinous and atrocious actions” rather than as a spirited struggle for freedom. He was not ignorant of the fate of the mutineers. Six were condemned to “the common penalty of death,” and “the heads of the five first be cut off after they are dead, and be fixed on a pole, in the square of Talcahuano.” Others were sentenced to ten years of hard labor. What accounts for Delano’s failure to liberate the slaves of the Tryal or to decry harsh sentences imposed on men and women who had attempted to take back their liberty, not unlike the actions that he and his countrymen had taken twenty years earlier? Like the majority of white Americans in the early nineteenth-century, his concept of liberty did not extend to African or Asian peoples. It exposed a cruel paradox at work in Delano’s America. His 1817 publication came at an historic moment when working class and middle class white men were becoming more vocal in demanding expansion of the vote and elimination of property qualifications, even as they sought to eliminate these rights for women and African Americans. The new “ladies journals” that had begun to appear advised Yankee women to subsume their energies into the domestic sphere of child raising, and budding abolitionists could go as only as far as joining colonization societies that promoted the emigration of black Americans to Africa.[ii] Within a decade, however, inaugurated in the work of another Bostonian, David Walkers Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), the currents within this literature that called for a more accepting view of others peoples both at home and abroad would be appropriated by a new generation of militant abolitionists who demanded equal rights.
So, what do we make of this? How do read the writing of an Indies trade literature within the context of racism at home. Delano was a rather ordinary middle class mariner. He worked his way up the ladder and, it appears, down again to die in a measure of respectability, but not wealth. We could easily reject him as racist, or ethnocentric, or backward. A close reading of Delano’s letters and Narrative suggests something else. On the cusp of contact with the peoples beyond the Atlantic—Chinese, Indians, Sumatrans, Parsees, it appears that he was trying to work out what all this meant. As a man inspired buy the rhetoric of the Enlightenment and a participant in his country’s recent revolution, he aspired to fashion himself as a citizen of the world, tolerant and cosmopolitan. Regarding slavery, it was the debate over diversity that played out in this Indies trade literature, and not so much one side of an issue or the other, that defined American identity in the early republic.
[i] Delano, Narrative, 496-497, 318, 329. Some of these accounts were reprinted from the Gazette of the United States. Newburyport Herald, 21 August 1807; Salem Gazette, 21 August 1807; Portsmouth Oracle, 22 August 1807; Mercantile Advertiser, 24 April 1806 and 27 August 1807; Public Advertiser, 22 August 1807; Republican Watch-Tower, 1 September 1807; New-York Spectator, 26 April 1806; Democratic Press 28 August 1807; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 25 August 1807; Vermont Centinel (Burlington), 2 September 1807; Alexandria Daily Advertiser, 28 April 1806; and the Enquirer of Richmond, Virginia, 6 May 1806. Melville published “Benito Cereno” in serial form in Putnam's Monthly in 1855, and a year later revised it for The Piazza Tales. A number of literary critics have wrestled with the problematic moral ambivalence they find in Melville’s classic short story. See, for instance, Andrew Delbanco, Melville: His World and Work (New York: Knopf, 2005); Rosalie Feltenstein, “Melville's Benito Cereno,” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography: 19, no. 3 (1947): 245-255; Dan McCall, Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism (New York, NY: Norton, 2002); Lea Bertani Vozar Newman, “Benito Cereno,” in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville, ed. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman (Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986); Maggie Montesinos Sale, The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997); Sterling Stuckey, “The Tambourine in Glory: African Culture and Melville's Art,” in The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville, ed. Robert S. Levine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998): 37-64, and Eric J. Sundquist, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature (Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993).
[ii] Delano, Narrative, 89, 64-65, 347-348.