Herman Melville’s novella Benito Cereno takes place on the high seas off the coast of Chile in the year 1799. As the story unfolds, with his ship docked in the harbor of a small island, Captain Amasa Delano, the skipper of the Bachelor's Delight, becomes suspicious of another ship approaching with a “strange sail” in an area where ships are "not so plenty.”
As Captain Delano continues observing the strange ship, Melville creates a watchful atmosphere foretelling things to come:
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mould. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.
When Captain Delano decides to investigate further, he notices the ship “viewed through the glass, showed no colours.” He discovers the vessel known as the San Dominick, and its Captain Benito Cereno appears extremely nervous, which further raises Delano’s suspicions that something is amiss.
Cereno tells Delano that the San Dominick is a Spanish slave vessel that ran into “heavy gales” while rounding Cape Horn and was damaged. The slaves supposedly belong to the slave master Alexandro Aranda, who died in the incident at sea. He tells Delano he lost his supplies and several crew members in the mishap, but closer examination reveals ample supplies available to the crew.
Delano notices that Cereno is continuously attended to by Babo, a slave who appeared to have some degree of authority. He also realizes the attitude of the slaves toward the whites aboard the ship is unusual. Their freedom does not meet the expected treatment of blacks generally found on slave vessels. Delano even witnesses a black-on-white assault, raising the captain’s suspicions to the peak.
A particularly significant dialogue takes place between Cereno and Delano with respect to a series of questions being thrown at Delano by the mysterious captain of the Spanish ship. It is obvious that the questions are aimed at discovering more about the security and cargo on the Bachelor's Delight:
At this last question, following so many pertinacious ones, for the soul of him Captain Delano could not but look very earnestly at the questioner, who, instead of meeting the glance, with every token of craven discomposure dropped his eyes to the deck; presenting an unworthy contrast to his servant, who, just then, was kneeling at his feet, adjusting a loose shoe-buckle; his disengaged face meantime, with humble curiosity, turned openly up into his master's downcast one.
Ultimately, Captain Delano ascertains that there was a mutiny aboard the San Dominick, essentially a slave rebellion, and he assists in putting down the mutiny and regaining control of the slave craft.
It must be noted that Melville’s entire story is riddled with details showing suspicious activity and many more details, examples, and quotations might be ascertained by a closer examination of the story by the student, with particular emphasis on symbolism and attitudes toward race and racism.