Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 674
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 blacks lead him to suspect that the Spaniard is plotting some evil. In general, Delano has no capacity to discern evil, and his ethical blindness, which parallels the pragmatic optimism of nineteenth century America, prevents Delano from perceiving the situation until the truth is thrust upon him. Like the lawyer in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Delano is an optimist who is indisposed to countenance evil; therefore, he repeatedly assures himself that his suspicions are illusory.
After resupplying the San Dominick, Delano prepares to depart and promises to tow the disabled ship to safe anchor next to the Bachelor’s Delight. As Delano casts off, Don Benito leaps into the longboat, pursued by the knife-wielding Babo. For a moment, Delano believes that he is being attacked by Don Benito, but a “flash of revelation” makes the situation clear. He realizes that the slaves have rebelled, killed most of the Spaniards, and are plotting to capture Delano’s ship in order to continue their journey to freedom. Their leader, Babo, is revealed to be a cunning and violent deceiver rather than the loyal servant that Delano had imagined him to be.
Delano overcomes Babo, rallies his crew, and manages to overwhelm the slaves who hold the San Dominick. The rebellious slaves are brought to trial, and the last portion of the story is a reconstruction of the court proceedings, retelling the narrative in cold, legalistic terms. Cereno is ruined by the experience. Delano’s efforts to console the Spaniard are futile, and Don Benito retires to a monastery, where he soon dies. Babo is executed, but his head, which is placed on a pole, still smiles in warning after death. The story shows that evil—dark metaphysical evil, an evil that cannot be repaired, meliorated, or ignored—is real in the world. Don Benito recognizes this, and the realization crushes him. Delano’s optimism is tempered but not conquered by the experience.
The story uses color imagery to emphasize the idea that truth is difficult to interpret. White represents good, although, as in the case of the skeleton that the murderous slaves place on the San Dominick’s figurehead, good is sometimes in decay. Black represents evil, although the story also recognizes the correctness of the slaves’ impulse toward freedom and disputes the stereotype of blacks as incompetent and happy-go-lucky. Gray is the other frequently used color in the story, and it represents the ambiguous mix of good and evil that faces humankind in the world.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625
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 from the tenor of Cereno’s questions: How many men has the American on board? Is his ship well armed? Will all the men stay on board at night? Spanish sailors skulk about; a balustrade collapses, nearly plunging Delano into the ocean. Cereno’s account of his voyage seems incredible—how could the San Dominick have taken months to travel the short distance the Bachelor’s Delight traversed in only a few days?
Delano, however, dismisses his suspicions as unworthy, and his visit does seem likely to end uneventfully. After navigating the San Dominick into the harbor, he boards his whaleboat to return to his ship. At that moment, though, Cereno confirms Delano’s fears. The Spaniard and his servant leap after him, followed by three Spanish sailors. Delano believes that they plan to murder him. The Americans overpower their assailants, only to discover that Cereno and the other whites have leapt into the water to escape the blacks, and that Babo has followed Cereno not to support an attack but to kill Cereno even at the cost of his own life.
At last Delano learns the true situation. On its way from Valparaiso to Callao, the San Dominick was seized by its cargo of slaves, who had been allowed to go about the decks unfettered. Led by Babo and Atufal, the blacks had killed all but a few Spaniards and ordered the rest to take the ship to Senegal. For their former owner, Don Alexandro Aranda, they reserved a particularly grisly fate. After murdering him, they removed all the flesh from his bones—probably by cannibalism—and substituted the skeleton for the ship’s original figurehead.
Like Delano, the Spanish had come to St. Maria for water but were surprised to meet another ship. Babo then instructed Cereno as to what to say and do, threatening him with instant death if he refused. Babo intended to seize the American ship, but instead the Americans recapture the San Dominick and help it reach Lima.
There, Cereno offers a full, official explanation and then retires to a monastery, a broken man. Three months later, he is dead, and he is buried in the church where the remains of Don Alexandro Aranda were deposited.