Benito Cereno Additional Summary

Herman Melville


(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.)