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Application of 'Art of War' to Benito Cereno by Herman Melville

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Through his thirteen chapters in the Art of War, Sun Tzu gives the blueprint for a successful conquest for any leader in metaphorically any field. Even though Sun Tzu’s Art of War may only refer to the setting of an actual battlefield, there are several “battlefields” in life people must overcome as leaders. One example parallel to this treatise would be the short story “Benito Cereno” written by Herman Melville. From Captain Delano’s perspective, Babo seemed like a helpful, obedient slave. Although Babo’s intelligence and ruthlessness was clearly noticed by the audience, the short story doesn’t show the audience his other qualities: manipulating and evil yet strategic. He was critically aware and socially responsible, especially towards the slaves on the San Dominick. Babo effectively utilizes the Art of War by carefully having variation of tactics, mapping out his plans and, breaking up big tasks into smaller ones, and attacking with fire.

Babo’s leadership was required in order to have the slave revolt. Being of servitude in the Spanish colonies for several years, he had carefully planned out his slave revolt. His effectiveness as a leader and his social competence are specifically put to the test when Captain Delano boards the slave vessel. Delano saw how broken down San Dominick was and wanted to check the ship out. Babo subverts racial politics by forming racial stereotypes that construct blacks as obedient yet unintelligent beings. He pretends to be Cereno’s servant and is successful in providing a false explanation regarding the San Dominick’s battered appearance. Babo’s goal was to come across as a humble and congenial assistant, more companion than servant. Babo’s performance as Cereno’s servant is so convincing that Delano admires him on several occasions for his loyalty to his master. This highlights Babo’s strategic thinking, as Babo knows that he must instill terror in the sailors to keep them from rebelling against him, while fooling Delano that he was an obedient servant. For example, during the shaving scene, Babo accidentally cuts Cereno’s cheeks with a razor. (Melville 39) This scene represents the tension that exists between the two characters, since Babo could have easily used the razor to cut anywhere on Cereno’s face. In this case, Babo appeared weak when he was actually strong, since Babo cut himself on the face as if Cereno was the one that did it. However, to Captain Delano, Babo appeared weak since he was merely just a servant helping his master shave his face. This is directly parallel to Chapter 8: Variation of Tactics. Tzu states:

“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, ut on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”

In this, Tzu explains that one needs to be able to adapt in any condition they may encounter. Although one should react to unique situations with creativity, the response must not be ignorant. Babo did not know San Dominick was going to encounter Captain Delano, but almost fooled him at the end by having a quick mind on how to play out the fake scenario.

Having a successful slave revolt requires strategic planning. At the end of the story, Delano prepares to have a small boat lowered into the water to make his way back to his own ship. However, Cereno suddenly threw himself into the boat as well, with Babo following him behind, trying to stab him. As the small boat got farther away from the San Dominick, a canvas fell from the figurehead. A skeleton was hanging there, with the words “Seguid vuestro jefe”, which means “Follow Your Leader.” That was when the readers knew that Cereno was not the leader. Babo was. It turns out that the ship underwent a slave revolt, led by Babo and Atufal. Benito was supposed to steer towards Senegal, but Captain Delano happened to meet them along the way. Babo forced Benito to play that everything was normal, as if Babo was his slave. Babo not only fooled Delano, but also the readers. This strategic planning is parallel to Sun Tzu’s Art of War: Laying Plans. Strategic planning is essential in any aspect. Without a strong foundation, a structure will crumble. Without a concise layout of a plan, it is easy for a leader to lose their grasp in a situation.

One could say that the same situation above could fit in the Sun Tzu’s rule of “Breaking big tasks into smaller ones. In the beginning, as soon as Delano stepped on the ship, Babo could have outright killed him. However, he did not. He ordered his men on the ship to all act their part so Delano will not get suspicious. According to Sun Tzu, if one groups a few hundred or even thousand men together and treat them as one. Suddenly, instead of having to direct a hundred thousand men individually, one can control them by directing the groups. Essentially, break down a big task into many smaller ones to make them more manageable. Killing Delano himself may be overwhelming at first, but Babo persisted by planning strategically and not impulsively.

After Babo places Alexandro Aranda’s skeleton on the ship, he warns the Spaniards on the ship not to rebel and cause trouble, threatening that or else they will “follow their leader”, meaning that they will all share Aranda’s cruel ending. Cereno and the other sailors were threatened with death if they gave anything away. However, at the end, when Delano returned to his ship, Benito Cereno desperately leaps into Delano’s ship. His dash towards freedom was quickly followed by Babo’s dagger, in which he tried to kill Cereno for “betraying” him. This represents Sun Tzu’s chapter: Attacking with Fire. Sun Tzu states:

“Fire attacks are the framework for discussing both using and surviving moves aimed at the destruction of an opponent.”

Although Tzu suggests that this method should not be used, Babo felt the need to get rid of Cereno. Sun Tzu’s Art of War does not only fit in settings of literal battlefields, but also settings that do not involve any violence. For example, today, the marketplace is also known as the “business battlefield.” Successful business applies tactics from the Art of War to defeat their competitors. He guides his readers that rather than competing in aspects where one competitor is superior, first conduct research, and discover what any business can do better than that competitor and focus on that particular strength. For example, this happens often in Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME) Class. There was a video shown regarding the invention, iSlide, which are customizable slide sandals. The company had to compete with top brands such as Adidas and Nike. However, the company did not worry about the reputation and brand. Instead, they focused on the customizable aspect of the sandals, which are not present in top brand companies. iSlide eventually became successful because their target market was appealed to the fact that they could customize their slide sandals. iSlide focused on the strength of their versatility and creativity and that was what made them such a successful company.

“Seguid vuestro jefe’ (‘Follow your leader’) seems to be the overall theme of Benito Creno. In the beginning, the “leader” seemed to be Cereno. To Delano, Cereno was the one that ran the ship and who the slaves obeyed. And Babo seemed to be like his obedient servant. However, the readers soon find out that Babo was actually the “leader”, strategizing ways to lead a slave revolt. At the conclusion of Herman Melville’s novella, Babo suffers his fate:

‘Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites” (Melville 75).

At the end, one could say that Cereno even followed his leader into death. No matter in Benito Cereno or in the business world, Sun Tzu’s Art of War universal advice can be applied to almost anything.

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Application Of ‘Art Of War’ To Benito Cereno By Herman Melville. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 16, 2022, from
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