When the ship that is the site of the ongoing slave revolt is first spotted in Melville's 1855 novella, "Benito Cereno," the vessel is immediately racialized and feminized. Referencing a style of dress popular among women in the Viceroyalty of Peru during the colonial period, the ship, writes Melville, "show[s] not unlike a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta." The saya y manto, or the tapada limeña, is literally a covering—a skirt and veil used to disguise the wearer's identity. It is an essential emblem of the impossibility of recognition and a signifier of freedoms marshalled under constraint. This paper proposes a reading of "Benito Cereno" that takes the saya y manto as a narrative and philosophical imperative. By tracing the confounding [End Page 104] circulations of the tapada limeña in the historical record, the women of this story—both the black women on board the ship and those conjured by dusky allusion—emerge as more than just an allegorical foils to shipboard masculinity. Instead, the women characters carry out Melville's challenge to colonial knowledge projects, easy identifications amidst the zeitgeist of Victorian classificatory sciences and attempts at definitive racialization. The interdependencies of willful identifications foisted upon raced and gendered individuals emerge more precisely. In the contemporarily familiar space of racial crisis and under the threat of violence, then, Melville stages the multivalent misunderstandings at the intersection of consolidating categories of race and gender.
Northwestern University [End Page 105]