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...
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