Study Guide

Benito Cereno

by Herman Melville

Benito Cereno Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Melville’s story “Benito Cereno” was originally published serially in three parts. There is some indication that he considered making it into a novel but was discouraged by his potential publisher. Melville drew much of his material from Amaso Delano’s A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817); in fact, much of the court deposition material is transcribed exactly from the original.

The story is set in August of 1799 off the coast of Chile, where the “singularly undistrustful” captain of an American sealer, Bachelor’s Delight, Amaso Delano, comes upon an erratically sailing ship that is flying no colors. Against the advice of his mate, Delano approaches the mysterious vessel in a longboat and discovers that she is the San Dominick, a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves from Buenos Aires to Lima. Upon boarding her, Delano meets the captain, Benito Cereno, an invalid who tells Delano a tale of the disease and the bad sailing weather that has killed much of his crew.

Delano is puzzled by the lack of discipline on the ship, the mysterious actions of the crew and slaves, the oversolicitousness of the servant Babo, and the mercurial behavior of Don Benito, who switches from gentleness to harshness without warning. Delano studies the unusual mix of sailors and slaves on deck, sensing that all is not as it seems; however, he is unable to reach any reasonable conclusion about the situation.

Although he takes pride in his enlightened attitude toward the Africans on board, Delano’s racist assumptions regarding the limited capabilities of...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Benito Cereno Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Captain Amasa Delano anchors his ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, in the harbor of St. Maria to take on water and food. The next day a Spanish ship, the San Dominick, also drifts into the harbor. Seeing the ragged state of the sails and the generally poor condition of the ship, Delano loads several baskets of fresh fish onto his whaleboat to present to the other vessel.

As soon as he steps on board, he is surrounded by blacks and whites lamenting their calamitous voyage marked by plague, hunger, thirst, and contrary winds. Moved by their story, Delano sends the whaleboat back for additional supplies while he remains to visit with the ship’s captain, Benito Cereno. Because Delano knows the harbor and Cereno clearly does not, the American plans to act as pilot to lead the San Dominick safely to shore. He also intends to refit and refurbish the Spanish merchantman so that it can sail to its destination of Lima, Peru.

Throughout the daylong visit, Delano is repeatedly appalled by Cereno’s behavior. The Spaniard never expresses gratitude for offers of help. He fails to maintain discipline, allowing crew members to fight, even to stab one another. However, be has ordered the docile Atufal to appear before him in chains every two hours until he begs forgiveness for some unnamed fault.

Delano is also troubled by Cereno’s repeated private conferences with his constant black companion, Babo. The Spaniard and the black seem to be conspiring, and Delano derives no comfort...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Benito Cereno Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Captain Amasa Delano is commander of an American ship called Bachelor’s Delight, which is anchored in the harbor of St. Maria, on an island off the coast of southern Chile. While there, he sees a ship apparently in distress, and, thinking it carries a party of monks, he sets out in a whaleboat to board the vessel and supply it with food and water. When he comes aboard, he finds that the ship, the San Dominick, is a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves. The crew is parched and moaning; the ship is filthy; the sails are rotten. Most deplorable of all, the captain, the young Don Benito Cereno, seems barely able to stand or to talk coherently. Aloof and indifferent, Cereno seems ill both physically (he coughs constantly) and mentally. He is attended by Babo, his devoted slave.

Delano sends the whaleboat back to his ship to get additional water, food, and extra sails for the San Dominick, while he remains aboard the desolate ship. He tries to talk to Cereno, but the captain’s fainting fits keep interrupting the conversation. The Spaniard seems reserved and sour, in spite of Delano’s attempts to assure the man that he is now out of danger. Delano finally assumes that Cereno is suffering from a severe mental disorder. The captain does, with great difficulty and after frequent private talks with Babo, manage to explain that the San Dominick was at sea for 190 days. They started out, Cereno explained, as a well-manned and smart vessel sailing from Buenos Aires to Lima but encountered several gales around Cape Horn, lost many officers and men, and then ran into dreadful calms and the ravages of plagues and scurvy. Most of the Spanish officers and all the passengers, including the slave owner, Don Alexandro Aranda, died of fever. Delano, who knew that the weather in recent months was not as extreme as Cereno described it, simply concludes that the Spanish officers were incompetent and did not take the proper precautions against disease. Cereno continually repeats that only the devotion of his slave, Babo, kept him alive.

Numerous other circumstances on the San Dominick begin to make the innocent Delano more suspicious. Although everything is in disorder and Cereno is obviously ill, he is dressed perfectly in a clean uniform. Six black men are...

(The entire section is 943 words.)