detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Tuesday, September 11, 2001


: . from Herman Melville's Benito Cereno, a story about an "unthinkable" slave uprising written in the 1850's but set in 1799, the year of the Saint-Domingue or Haitian Revolution:
    Always upon first boarding a large and populous ship at sea, especially a foreign one, with a nondescript crew such as Lascars or Manilla men, the impression varies in a peculiar way from that produced by first entering strange house with strange inmates in a strange land. Both house and ship - the one by its walls and blinds, the other by its high bulwarks like ramparts - hoard from view their interiors till the last moment: but in the case of the ship there is this addition; that the living spectacle it contains, upon its sudden and complete disclosure, has, in contrast with the blank ocean which zones it, something of the effect of enchantment. The ship seems unreal; these strange costumes, gestures, and faces, but a shadowy tableau just emerged from the deep, which directly must receive back what it gave.

This mention of "Manilla men" in Melville's Benito Cereno (and in Typee and Moby Dick) should be old news to many Filipino and Fil-Am literature majors but I'm not sure whether someone has checked Melville's papers in Pittsfield, Mass. for any notes regarding the historical figures these "Manilla men" were based upon. Why did Melville choose to represent these "Manilla men" as enchanting or even diabolical? And why does Melville cite "Manilla men" in a casual manner as if their presence in the South Seas were common knowledge at the very least among American seafarers in the mid 19th - century long after the Manila galleons ceased operations?


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