Herman Melville

Benito Cereno

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Benito Cereno Summary

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Benito Cereno is a novella by Herman Melville, published in 1855. Initially seen merely as an accomplished adventure story, over time the novella has come to be viewed as a sophisticated look at the institution of slavery and the attitude of Americans towards blacks—a situation that would break out into open war a few years after publication.

In 1799, the captain of Bachelor’s Delight, Amasa Delano, sees a ship drifting on the water. Delano gets into his whaleboat and is rowed over to investigate. The figurehead of the ship has been draped in canvas, and underneath, the phrase “Follow your leader” has been chalked. Delano boards the ship, the San Dominick, and is met by Captain Benito Cereno. Delano notices that there are many more black people than Spaniards on board. As the blacks implore him for water and food, Delano learns that a fever raged on board, killing more of the Spaniards than the slaves. Delano, a racist, ignores the signs of abuse and trouble, failing to realize that the slaves have revolted and murdered their owner, and Captain Cereno and his men are terrified and under their control. Cereno’s cooperation is ensured by the constant presence of his “servant,” Babo, who is actually the leader of the rebels.

Delano sends his men to gather supplies from his ship. He is puzzled by Cereno’s reluctance to discipline the slaves on his ship. Cereno reluctantly tells Delano that they met bad weather while going around Cape Horn, and threw many supplies overboard in a desperate attempt to save the ship, including their fresh water. Cereno nearly faints, and Delano wonders if the man is ill or mentally deranged. He then tells of the disease and bad luck that have kept them drifting. He insists that the deceased owner of the slaves told him it would be safe to let them roam freely and that he was right. Impressed by Babo’s dedication to his master, Delano offers to loan three men to Cereno so he can get his ship underway again.

Delano witnesses several incidents of disturbing violence, including a moment where a black boy slashes a white boy with a knife. Cereno does nothing about this—in fact, he seems to not be aware of it. Delano notices that some of the slaves, even those in chains, act in a haughty and arrogant manner, and he is disturbed by the constant whispered conversations held between the slaves. Cereno, guided by Babo, questions Delano about the strength of his crew and the arms in place on board the Bachelor’s Delight; Delano answers truthfully because he cannot imagine that Cereno is not an honorable man in complete control of his ship. When his men arrive with food, he sends them back again for water.

Babo tells Cereno that it is time for his shave, and Delano joins them. He is impressed by Babo’s skill with a razor but is troubled by Cereno’s obvious nervousness. When Delano questions Cereno about his poor navigation, Babo cuts Cereno. Delano exits, and Babo follows him, insisting that Cereno cut himself by accident. Delano attempts to have a private conversation with Cereno, but Babo is always underfoot. Finally, Delano invites Cereno back to the Bachelor’s Delight for coffee. Cereno declines, offending Delano.

Delano decides it is time to leave and gets back into his whaleboat. Suddenly Captain Cereno leaps into the boat, followed by several of his men. Immediately, Delano is startled to see Babo and several other blacks follow. Babo has a knife, and Delano initially fears he is the intended victim, but Babo immediately seeks to attack Cereno. Delano’s sailors overpower Babo before he can kill Cereno.

Delano realizes what is happening on board the San Dominick. He sees the remaining whites on board scrambling up into the rigging to escape the fury of the revolting slaves. The sheet of canvas that had covered the figurehead of the ship falls away, and the corpse of the slave owner is revealed.

Delano has his men detain Babo, and then leads the rest of his forces to attack the boat in order to claim it. The rest of the story is explained in a series of legal documents. Captain Delano meets with Benito Cereno and is puzzled by his downcast attitude. He asks Cereno what has cast a shadow on him since he has been rescued and saved. Cereno replies sadly, “the negro.”

Babo does nothing to defend himself, refusing to speak even a word. He is sentenced to death. His head is cut off and his body burned; his head is affixed to a stake and placed in the plaza at Lima, facing St. Bartholomew’s church, where the slave owner he murdered has been buried. Cereno goes to a monastery nearby and lives for three months after being dismissed in disgrace from the court, then dies.