Author: Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Type of plot: Adventure romance
Time of plot: 1799
Locale: The harbor of St. Maria, off the coast of Chile, and Lima, Peru
First published: 1856
Superficially, this is a story of slavery and mutiny on the high seas, but beneath the adventure-charged plot lies Melville's examination of that subject which so fascinated him: the confrontation of extreme forces of good and evil in the universe. The irony of the tale is that goodhearted, naive Delano is only victorious in rescuing the victimized Benito because he is too innocent to comprehend the horror and depravity into which he wanders.
Amasa Delano (a.ma'sa del'??.no), an American sea captain. Off the coast of Chile he sees a ship in distress and sets out with food and water for her company. He finds a Spanish merchantman carrying slaves. Ship and crew are in deplorable condition, and their captain suffers from what appear to be severe mental disorders. A series of strange and sinister events lead Captain Delano to the knowledge that the Spanish captain is a prisoner of the slaves. He is able to rescue the captive and take him ashore.
Don Benito Cereno (don ba.ne'to thara'no), the captain of a Spanish slave ship. His human cargo mutinies and makes him a prisoner, and he is forced to witness horrible atrocities on and murders of the Spanish crew. After his rescue by Captain Delano, he gives testimony concerning the mutiny and dies broken in mind and spirit.
Babo (ba'bo), a mutinous slave. He poses as the devoted servant of Captain Cereno and attempts to deceive Captain Delano concerning his master's true condition. Failing in this attempt, he is captured and hanged on Captain Cereno's testimony.
Don Alexandro Aranda (don a.la.ksan'dro a.ran'da), owner of the cargo of the Spanish slave ship. He is murdered and mutilated by the mutinous slaves.
Raneds (ra'nadz), the slave ship's mate, murdered by the mutinous slaves.
Captain Amasa Delano was commander of an American sealer called Bachelor's Delight, which was anchored in the harbor of St. Maria, on an island off the coast of southern Chile. While there, he saw a ship apparently in distress, and thinking it carried a party of monks, he sent out in a whaleboat to board the vessel and supply it with food and water. When he came aboard, he found that the ship, the San Dominick, was a Spanish merchant ship carrying slaves. The crew was parched and moaning; the ship itself was filthy; the sails were rotten. Most deplorable of all, the captain, the young Don Benito Cereno, seemed barely able to stand or to talk coherently. Aloof and indifferent, the Captain seemed ill both physically (he coughed constantly) and mentally. The Captain was attended by Babo, his devoted slave.
Delano sent the whaleboat back to his ship to get additional water, food, and extra sails for the San Dominick, while he remained aboard the desolate ship. He tried to talk to Cereno, but the Captain's fainting fits kept interrupting the conversation. The Spaniard seemed reserved and sour, in spite of Delano's attempts to assure the man that he was now out of danger. Delano finally assumed that Cereno was suffering from a severe mental disorder. The Captain did, with great difficulty and after frequent private talks with Babo, manage to explain that the San Dominick had been at sea for 190 days. They had, Cereno explained, started out as a well-manned and smart vessel sailing from Buenos Aires to Lima but had encountered several gales around Cape Horn, lost many officers and men, and then had run 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, had died of fever. Delano, who knew that the weather in recent months had not been as extreme as Cereno described it, simply concluded that the Spanish officers had been incompetent and had not taken the proper precautions against disease. Cereno continually repeated that only the devotion of his slave, Babo, had kept him alive.
Numerous other circumstances on the San Dominick began to make the innocent Delano more suspicious. Although everything was in disorder and Cereno was obviously ill, he was dressed perfectly in a clean uniform. Six black men were sitting in the rigging holding hatchets, although Cereno said they were only cleaning them. Two were beating up a Spanish boy, but Cereno explained that this deed was simply a form of sport. The slaves were not in chains; Cereno claimed they were so docile that they did not require chains. This notion pleased the humane Delano, although it also surprised him.
Every two hours, as they awaited the expected wind and the arrival of Delano's whaleboat, a large black in chains was brought before Cereno, who would ask him if he, the Captain, could be forgiven. The man would answer, "No," and be led away. At one point, Delano began to fear that Cereno and Babo were plotting against him, for they moved away from him and whispered together. Cereno then asked Delano about his ship, requesting the number of men and the strength of arms aboard the Bachelor's Delight. Delano thought they might be pirates.
Nevertheless, Delano joined Cereno and Babo in Cereno's cabin for dinner. Throughout the meal, Delano alternately gained and lost confidence in Cereno's story. He tried, while discussing a means of getting Cereno new sails, to get Babo to leave the room, but the man and master were apparently inseparable. After dinner Babo, while shaving his master, cut his cheek slightly despite the warning that had been given. Babo left the room for a second and returned with his own cheek cut in a curious imitation of his master's. Delano thought this episode curious and sinister, but he finally decided that the man was so devoted to Cereno that he had punished himself for inadvertently cutting his master.
At last, Delano's whaleboat returned with more supplies. Delano, about to leave the San Dominick, promised to return with new sails the next day. When he invited Cereno to his own boat, he was surprised at the Captain's curt refusal and his failure to escort the visitor to the rail. Delano was offended at the Spaniard's apparent lack of gratitude. As the whaleboat was about to leave, Cereno appeared suddenly at the rail. He expressed his gratitude profusely and then, hastily, jumped into the whaleboat. At first Delano thought that Cereno was about to kill him; then he saw Babo at the rail brandishing a knife. In a flash, he realized that Babo and the other slaves had been holding Cereno a captive. Delano took Cereno back to the Bachelor's Delight. Later they pursued the fleeing slaves. The slaves, having no guns, were easily captured by the American ship and brought back to shore.
Cereno later explained that the slaves, having mutinied shortly after the ship set out, had committed horrible atrocities and killed most of the Spaniards. They had murdered the mate, Raneds, for a trifling offense and had committed atrocities on the dead body of Don Alexandro Aranda, whose skeleton they placed on the masthead.
On his arrival in Lima, Don Benito Cereno submitted a long testimony, recounting all the cruelties the slaves had committed. Babo was tried and hanged. Cereno felt enormously grateful to Delano, recalling the strange innocence that had somehow kept the slaves from harming him, when they had the chance, aboard the San Dominick.
Don Benito Cereno planned to enter a monastery; however, broken in body and spirit, he died three months after he completed his testimony.
Originally serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855, Benito Cereno first appeared, slightly revised, in book form as the first story in Herman Melville's Piazza Tales in 1856. It was not reprinted until 1924, when interest was being revived in Melville's writings. Since then it has often been praised as not only one of Melville's best fictional works but also one of the finest short novels in American literature. In 1964, Robert Lowell adapted Benito Cereno into verse-drama as the third act of his play The Old Glory.
Benito Cereno is Melville's version of a true story he had read in Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville freely adapted Delano's account to his own fictional purposes. The court depositions, which make up a considerable part of the latter half of Benito Cereno, have been shown to be close to those in Delano's account, though Melville omitted some of the court material. In contrast, the creation of atmosphere, the building of suspense, the development of the three main characters--Delano, Cereno, and Babo--and the extended use of symbolism are among Melville's chief contributions to the original story. Also, the thematically important conversation between Delano and Cereno at the end of Benito Cereno was added by Melville.
The remarkable third paragraph of Benito Cereno illustrates Melville's careful combining of atmospheric detail, color symbolism, and both dramatic and thematic foreshadowing.
The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything grey. 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 grey surtout. Flights of troubled grey vapours 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.
The description, with its repeated use of grey and seemed, is important in setting the scene for a story the action of which will be, as seen through Delano's eyes, ambiguous and deceptive until the light of truth suddenly blazes upon the American captain's mind. Until that time, he will be seeing both action and character through a mist. The grey is symbolically significant also because Delano's clouded vision will cause him to misjudge both the whites and blacks aboard the San Dominick. In the light of the final revelations of the story, the grey has a moral symbolism too, perhaps for Melville and surely for the modern reader, since Cereno and Delano ate not morally pure white or good, nor is Babo all black or bad. The Spaniard is a slaver and the American appears to condone the trade though he is not a part of it; the slave is certainly justified in seeking an escape from captivity for himself and his fellow blacks, though one cannot justify some of the atrocities consciously committed by Babo and his followers. The closing sentence of this mist-shrouded paragraph--"Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come"--not only looks forward to the mystery that so long remains veiled but also anticipates the final words of the two captains, words that partly suggest the great difference in their characters. Delano says, "You ate saved: what has cast such a shadow upon you?" Cereno replies, "The negro."
In reading Benito Cereno, one is caught up in the same mystery that Captain Delano cannot penetrate, and one longs for a final release of the suspense, a solution to the strange puzzle. Melville's hold upon the reader until the flash of illumination in the climax is maintained by his use of Delano's consciousness as the lens through which scene, character, and action are viewed. The revelation is so long delayed because of Delano's being the kind of man he is: "a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man." His heart is benevolent, but his mind is slow to perceive through the dragging hours from his boarding the San Dominick until he is finally shocked into recognition of the truth when Babo prepares to stab Don Benito with the dagger he had concealed in his hair. At one moment Delano is repelled by Don Benito's manner and suspicious of his intentions; at the next he is inclined to acquit Cereno of seeming rudeness because of his frail health and condemn himself for his suspicions with the excuse that "the poor invalid scarcely knew what he was about."
Just as Melville may have intended to portray Delano as representing a type of American--good-hearted, friendly, and helpful but rather slow-witted and naive--so he may have delineated Don Benito as emblematic of eighteenth century Spanish aristocracy--proud, enfeebled, and, finally, troubled in conscience over such moral crimes as slave trading. To Delano, he first appears as "a gentlemanly, reserved-looking, and rather young man ... dressed with singular richness, but bearing plain traces of recent sleepless cares and disquietudes." Later, Don Benito's manner "conveyed a sort of sour and gloomy disdain [which] the American in charity ascribed to the harassing effects of sickness." Further observation leads Delano to conclude that Don Benito's "singular alternations of courtesy and ill-breeding" are the result of either "innocent lunacy, or wicked imposture." He is finally undeceived and apologizes for having suspected villainy in Don Benito toward the end of the danger-filled encounter with the slaves. Delano is lighthearted and eager to dismiss the affair when the danger is over and his suspicions have been erased. Don Benito's mind, however, is of a different cast. He broods on the results in human experience of the confusing of appearance and reality: "You were with me all day," he says to Delano, "stood with me, sat with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me, and yet, your last act was to clutch for a monster, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may ever the best man err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted."
The horrors resulting from the slave mutiny and the tensions and terror that follow Delano's kind offer to aid a ship in apparent distress, leave an already ill man a dejected and broken one. The shadow of "the negro" has been cast forever upon him. He retires to the monastery on the symbolically named Mount Agonia and, three months later, is released from his sufferings.
Babo, the third major character in Benito Cereno, is unforgettable, one of the first important black characters in American fiction (Mrs. Stowe's Uncle Tom had preceded him by only four years). He is one of the most striking of the "masked" characters who appear in Melville's work from beginning to end, hiding their true selves behind the semblance they present to the world. Captain Delano is completely deceived in his first sight of Babo with Don Benito: "By his side stood a black of small stature, in whose rude face, as occasionally, like a shepherd's dog, he mutely turned it up into the Spaniard's, sorrow and affection were equally blended." His attentiveness makes him seem "less a servant than a devoted companion" to Don Benito. Though he speaks little, his few brief speeches suggest the intelligence that enables him to lead the revolt on the San Dominick. He is capable of irony, as is clear when Benito explains that it is to Babo he owes his preservation and that Babo pacified "his more ignorant brethren, when at intervals tempted to murmurings." "Ah, master," he sighs, "... what Babo has done was but duty." The remark is as masked as Babo's bowed face, and the American is so completely taken in that, "As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other."
With its many ironies--an aristocratic Spanish slaver captured by his slaves, a murderous black posing as a faithful servant, a naive American protected from violent death through his own innocence and uncovering villainy by accident--Benito Cereno may be read as a magnificently contrived parable of limited, rational, well-ordered man struggling against evil in the social and natural universe and achieving at least a partial victory.3