DELANO, AMASA (1763–1823). Amasa Delano, whose Voyages and
Travels (1817) was the source for Herman Melville’s* “Benito Cereno”*
(1855), was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts. After serving briefly in the
Continental army during the American Revolution, Delano began a lifelong
career as sailor, ship captain, and occasional shipbuilder, often in conjunction
with his brother Samuel.
Voyages and Travels focuses on his experiences in the Pacific and Indian
Oceans from 1790 until 1807, during which time Delano several times circumnavigated the globe. In Voyages and Travels Delano clearly wants to be
both informative and entertaining. He offers advice on what supplies to take
on a voyage, how best to approach specific islands and landfalls, and where
to find water and other supplies. He describes not only such well-known
places as Canton, Bombay, Calcutta, and Lima but also the Palau Islands,
New Guinea, and other relatively unexplored areas. Finally, Delano likes to
tell a good story: a battle with the natives of New Guinea, the mutiny* on
the Bounty and its aftermath, a near drowning. Delano clearly wonders
whether civilization is best for the natives of the islands he visits. He ordinarily thinks well of the islanders and believes that European exploitation
has caused most of the antagonism he encounters.
Delano gave significant space to an account of his capture of the Spanish
ship Tryal off the coast of Chile in 1801 and to the events subsequent to
the capture. Seeing the ship in apparent difficulty, Delano went aboard, was
told that the ship was long without provisions, remained on board while a
boat went for food and water, and learned that the slaves had revolted and
captured the ship only when its captain, Benito Cereno, jumped into his
boat as it was leaving. Melville’s rewriting of that account is one of his most
famous narratives, “Benito Cereno.” Melville’s character Amasa Delano
much resembles the historical author of Voyages and Travels. Both figures
desire to be helpful and are filled with advice for others; both are generally
sympathetic to the slaves but consider themselves superior and are strict
disciplinarians; both are deceived by the situation until Cereno leaps into
the boat. Melville, however, at once enlarges the scope of his Delano to be
more nearly a representative American and diminishes him into a character
somewhat less acute than the real person.