46 pages 1 hour read

Herman Melville

Benito Cereno

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1855

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Benito Cereno is a novella by American author Herman Melville, first published in monthly periodical Putnam’s Monthly in 1855 and subsequently included in Melville’s short story collection The Piazza Tales in 1856. The story offers a fictionalized portrayal of the 1805 revolt of enslaved passengers on a Spanish ship under Captain Benito Cereno’s command. Melville drew inspiration from American Captain Amasa Delano’s memoir, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands. Exploring themes of Slavery and Racial Bias as Dehumanizing, The Unreliability of Appearances, and The Ambiguity of Morality, Benito Cereno has gained increasing recognition over time and is considered among Melville’s best works. The novella’s ambiguity has given rise to diverse interpretations, with some perceiving it as pro-slavery and others as abolitionist.

This guide refers to the 2014 Enhanced Books e-book version of Benito Cereno.

Content Warning: The source material includes depictions of racism and enslavement, as well as racist and antisemitic stereotypes; there is also an instance of implied cannibalism. Additionally, the source material uses outdated and offensive terms for Black people, which quotes within this guide may reproduce.

Plot Summary

Narrated from a third-person perspective and mostly limited to Captain Delano’s point of view, Benito Cereno opens in 1799 as American Captain Amasa Delano anchors his ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, near the southern coast of Chile. There, a drifting ship captures his attention. Believing the ship may be in distress, Delano gets into his whaleboat and rows over to investigate.

Delano notices that the ship, the San Dominick, is in ruins and that the figurehead has been draped in canvas. On the side of the ship, the phrase “Follow your leader” has been chalked. Boarding the ship, Delano observes many Black enslaved people and few white Spanish sailors. The crowd pleads for water and supplies, explaining that an epidemic of scurvy, followed by fever, killed many of the ship’s passengers. Delano then meets the ship’s captain, Benito Cereno, who is accompanied by his personal enslaved servant, Babo.

Delano sends his crew back to gather supplies from the Bachelor’s Delight. He is puzzled by Cereno’s reluctance to discipline the enslaved passengers and by his impoliteness and apathy. When Delano inquires about the ship’s situation, Cereno explains that they encountered bad weather around Cape Horn and ended up tossing supplies overboard in desperation. A coughing fit interrupts Cereno’s story, prompting Delano to ponder whether the captain is physically or mentally ill. Resuming his account, Cereno details the scurvy and fever that claimed many lives and the lack of wind that has left the ship adrift. Babo’s unwavering loyalty to his master impresses Delano, who offers to help the ship. When he asks about the Black passengers’ enslaver, Alexandro Aranda, Cereno reveals that Aranda succumbed to fever during the voyage.

Aboard the ship, Delano witnesses several incidents that disturb him, such as a Black boy slashing a white sailor with a knife. Cereno’s lack of intervention in such situations confuses Delano, as does Atufal: an enslaved man in chains who nevertheless emanates an air of regality and rebellion. Frequent hushed conversations between Cereno and Babo also disturb Delano. Prompted by Babo, Cereno inquires about the strength of Delano’s crew and the weaponry aboard the Bachelor’s Delight. Delano responds truthfully, privately dismissing his suspicions of Cereno. When his men arrive with supplies, Delano sends them back to his ship, telling them he will personally pilot the San Dominick once a breeze arrives.

Babo reminds Cereno that it is time for his shave, and Delano joins them. Babo’s deftness and grace with the razor impress Delano, but he remains puzzled by Cereno’s evident nervousness. When Delano inquires again about the ship’s troubled history, Cereno trembles, and Babo cuts him. Delano exits the room and Babo follows, complaining that Cereno cut his cheek in reprimand for his carelessness. During lunch, Delano attempts to engage in a private conversation with Cereno, but the latter insists that Babo be present as well.

Delano observes a slight breeze and begins to pilot the San Dominick back to his own ship. As he does this, Cereno remains in his cabin, apathetic and shaken. When Delano’s ship comes into view, he asks Cereno to join him on the Bachelor’s Delight for coffee. Cereno declines, offending Delano. As Delano boards his whaleboat to return to his ship, Cereno leaps into the boat, followed by Babo. Brandishing a knife, Babo tries to assault Cereno. Delano and his sailors intervene, overpowering Babo before he can harm Cereno.

Delano finally grasps the situation on the San Dominick—a revolt of the enslaved passengers. The remaining white sailors on board try to escape the fury of the rebels, and the covering on the ship’s figurehead falls away, revealing the skeleton of Alexandro Aranda, the enslaver. Delano’s men detain Babo and attack the Spanish ship, defeating the rebellion. The two ships sail to Lima, where the incident is investigated. Cereno, in poor health, finds solace in a religious institution.

A legal document presents the testimony of Benito Cereno. It exposes Babo as the mastermind behind the revolt, which led to the casualties among the crew, including Aranda. The rebels were controlling the Spanish sailors all along, and Captain Benito Cereno’s peculiar behavior stemmed from his fear of Babo, who had power over his life.

Babo remains silent during the trial, refusing to defend himself, and receives a death sentence. His head is cut off and displayed on a stake, and his body is burned. Cereno lives in the monastery for three months, eventually succumbing to the trauma of his experience.

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