Benito Cereno

by

Herman Melville

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Babo is one of the African slaves traded on the San Dominick. As the secret ringleader of the slave revolt, he is an enigmatic, fascinating character, both deeply intelligent and unabashedly cruel. A striking aspect of Babo’s character in Benito Cereno is that, despite his crucial role in the narrative, he is never given a voice. His words in Captain Delano’s presence cannot be trusted because they are part of a performance in which Babo pretends to be an innocent, devoted servant to Benito Cereno and abides by racist stereotypes that he knows Delano will be receptive to. Babo’s repetitive actions, such as physically supporting Cereno and staring him in the eyes, have the double function of convincing Delano that Babo is a deeply caring servant and, simultaneously, of menacingly reminding Cereno that he should follow Babo’s orders. The shaving scene, in which Babo cuts Cereno’s cheek, represents the climax of the life-threatening tension that exists between the two characters, since Babo could easily use his razor to cut Cereno’s throat. It also reveals Babo’s knowledge and use of symbolism, as he uses a Spanish flag as an apron to assert his power and express his contempt for the Spanish empire. In Cereno’s testimony, the extent of Babo’s tyranny finally comes to light. During the slave revolt, Babo, with the help of his assistant Atufal, orders Spanish soldiers to be thrown overboard alive, to be eaten by sharks. He also orders Cereno’s best friend Alexandro Aranda to be killed, before using his skeleton as the ship’s figure-head. This highlights Babo’s cruel, strategic thinking, as Babo knows that he must instill terror in the sailors to keep them from rebelling. Babo is ultimately sentenced to capital punishment in Lima. His silent presence at the end of the novella, through his publicly displayed head, highlights Babo’s enduring influence as a victim, a vengeful oppressor, and a judge—someone whose dehumanizing treatment as a slave and whose subsequent violent rebellion highlight the horrors of slavery.

Babo Quotes in Benito Cereno

The Benito Cereno quotes below are all either spoken by Babo or refer to Babo . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Racism and Prejudice Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Benito Cereno published in 2016.
Benito Cereno Quotes

To think that, under the aspect of infantile weakness, the most savage energies might be couched—those velvets of the Spaniard but the silky paw to his fangs.

Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

There is something in the negro which, in a peculiar way, fits him for avocations about one’s person. Most negroes are natural valets and hair-dressers […]. There is, too, a smooth tact about them in this employment, with a marvelous, noiseless, gliding briskness, not ungraceful in its way, singularly pleasing to behold, and still more so to be the manipulated subject of. And above all is the great gift of good humor. Not the mere grin or laugh is here meant. Those were unsuitable. But a certain easy cheerfulness, harmonious in every glance and gesture; as though God had set the whole negro to some pleasant tune.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano, Babo
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

“The castle and the lion,” exclaimed Captain Delano—“why Don Benito, this is the flag of Spain you use here. It’s well it’s only I, and not the King, that sees this,” he added with a smile, “but”—turning towards the black,—“it’s all one, I suppose, so the colors be gay;” which playful remark did not fail some- what to tickle the negro.

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Related Symbols: Flags
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Is it possible, thought Captain Delano; was it to wreak in private his Spanish spite against this poor friend of his, that Don Benito, by his sullen manner, impelled me to withdraw? Ah, this slavery breeds ugly passions in man.—Poor fellow!

Related Characters: Captain Amasa Delano (speaker), Don Benito Cereno, Babo
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

That moment, across the long-benighted mind of Captain Delano, a flash of revelation swept, illuminating in unanticipated clearness his host’s whole mysterious demeanor, with every enigmatic event of the day, as well as the entire past voyage of the San Dominick. He smote Babo’s hand down, but his own heart smote him harder. With infinite pity he withdrew his hold from Don Benito. Not Captain Delano, but Don Benito, the black, in leaping into the boat, had intended to stab.

Both the black’s hands were held, as, glancing up towards the San Dominick, Captain Delano, now with the scales dropped from his eyes, saw the negroes, not in misrule, not in tumult, not as if frantically concerned for Don Benito, but with mask torn away, flourishing hatchets and knives, in ferocious piratical revolt.

Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew’s church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda; and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.

Related Characters: Don Benito Cereno, Babo , Alexandro Aranda
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Benito Cereno LitChart as a printable PDF.
Benito Cereno PDF

Babo Character Timeline in Benito Cereno

The timeline below shows where the character Babo appears in Benito Cereno. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Benito Cereno
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...reveals the psychological hardship he has endured. Cereno is constantly accompanied by a black slave, Babo, who is seemingly devoted to his master in the same way a shepherd’s dog might... (full context)
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...functions on his own, as he seems too overwhelmed by mental suffering. As a result, Babo helps him in every single basic function. To Delano, Babo’s caring, friendly attitude is typical... (full context)
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...of status and skin color. Delano is astounded to note that Cereno puts his servant Babo in charge of giving out orders, thus behaving not in the dictatorial role that he... (full context)
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...of Cereno’s best officers. During Cereno’s recounting, he becomes so distraught that he coughs heavily. Babo is forced to support him physically, wrapping an arm around him while staring constantly into... (full context)
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Babo intervenes, lamenting his master’s physical and mental state and saying that Cereno is overwhelmed by... (full context)
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...their calm conduct throughout this entire ordeal. He adds that he owes his survival to Babo. While Babo humbly reiterates that he only obeyed his duty, Delano, impressed by what he... (full context)
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...as deck officers. Upon hearing these words, Cereno’s face suddenly shows gratefulness and enthusiasm. However, Babo whispers that Cereno must not become over-excited and takes Cereno aside to share a private... (full context)
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...his friend’s death—because of the fever, Cereno confirms—Cereno, overcome by emotion, begins to shake and Babo has to support him again. Trying to comfort Cereno, Delano shares with him a similar... (full context)
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...by a chain wrapped around his body, connected to his neck by a metallic collar. Babo murmurs that Atufal walks like a mute and Cereno recoils in shock. Babo encourages Cereno... (full context)
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...and Cereno says that Atufal has committed an unacceptable act. Cereno hesitates and looks at Babo before pursuing his explanation. He says that for sixty days, every two hours, Atufal must... (full context)
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Delano suggests that Cereno should let Atufal free since he seems so compliant, but Babo mutters that Cereno will never do this. He shows Delano that a key hangs from... (full context)
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Afterwards, Cereno and Babo begin to whisper to each other, apart from Delano. He notices that Cereno no longer... (full context)
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...they have some arms in case of emergency. Cereno then keeps quiet and returns to Babo, where he begins to whisper once more. (full context)
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Finding that Babo and Cereno look like conspirators and confused about Cereno’s questions, Delano once again begins to... (full context)
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...the oakum-pickers. When Delano points this out to Cereno, Cereno begins to cough uncontrollably and Babo suddenly appears to give him support. This leads Delano to compliment Babo once again on... (full context)
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Babo then arrives, telling Delano that Cereno invites him below deck. Happy about this unexpected turn... (full context)
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...same way they did with the water. Impressed by this idea, Delano obeys him, although Babo insists on keeping one bottle of cider for his master alone. Delano tells his mates... (full context)
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...He does not remember mentioning Cape Horn and remains in shock for a few seconds. Babo then intervenes, reminding Cereno that it is his duty to announce shaving time. He adds... (full context)
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...Cereno answers that circumstances have led him to accept such a state of affairs. Following Babo’s gestures, Cereno gets ready to be shaved. Noticing Babo’s diligence, Delano concludes that most black... (full context)
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As Babo prepares to shave Cereno, Delano is entertained by Babo’s decision to set a small colored... (full context)
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Performing his duties as a barber, Babo reminds Cereno not to shake because it makes Babo more likely to cut him. Babo... (full context)
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...Cereno cannot be shaken out of his depressed stupor, Delano walks out of the room. Babo exits the cabin a moment later with a cut on his cheek. In a sorrowful... (full context)
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...mixing some white blood with African blood improves the quality of it. Looking anxiously at Babo, Cereno adds that he has heard the same type of comments about Spanish and Native... (full context)
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Delano and Cereno then enter the cabin and sit around the table. Delano notices that Babo has chosen to sit behind him, not behind Cereno, and assumes that this allows Babo... (full context)
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...left alone with Cereno so that they can discuss financial matters, but Cereno insists that Babo is not only his servant but his confidant—in addition to originally being captain of the... (full context)
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...outside. Delano begins to give navigation orders to both the slaves and the sailors, which Babo, who has followed him, soon repeats. Delano is satisfied to note that Babo is fulfilling... (full context)
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...God may protect Delano better than him. Moved, Delano is inclined to stay but follows Babo’s silent indication to leave. (full context)
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...Delano’s predictions, the crew on the San Dominick reacts to Cereno’s disappearance with wild anger. Babo, holding a dagger, jumps from the ship into the boat. Prepared, Delano succeeds in restraining... (full context)
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...Delano finally understands the whole series of mysterious events he has witnessed. While he subdues Babo, he finally realizes that Babo was not trying to kill him, Delano, but his master... (full context)
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...murdered friend Alexandro Aranda. When the boat reaches Delano’s ship, Cereno refuses to move until Babo is fully tied up and sent below deck, which Delano takes care to do. Delano... (full context)
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...Alexandro Aranda. Cereno lists some of the black slaves on the ship, including Francesco and Babo. (full context)
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...kept a few tied sailors on board to handle the ship’s navigation. Cereno talked to Babo, the ringleader, and Atufal, his assistant, asking them to put an end to violence and... (full context)
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After many fruitless days, Babo threatened once more to kill the white men on board if Cereno tried to reach... (full context)
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Four days later, after Babo threw some more sailors overboard and Cereno begged Babo daily to tell him where Aranda’s... (full context)
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...back to Senegal as long as they stopped killing the Spaniards. However, the next day, Babo ordered the destruction of the boats, in case the sailors tried to escape. (full context)
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...seventy-three days’ journey, the San Dominick reached Santa Maria, where they saw the Bachelor’s Delight. Babo tried to reassure the panicked slaves, who had not expected to see another ship, and,... (full context)
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Cereno notes that, throughout Captain Delano’s visit, Babo stayed by his side, playing the part of a faithful slave when in fact Babo,... (full context)
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...they all supported it once it took place. He mentions that Francesco was devoted to Babo and had suggested poisoning Delano, which Babo kept him from doing because he had other... (full context)
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...in the men’s lives in authoritative ways that had gotten other Spanish sailors killed by Babo. Delano humbly adds that, although he was protected by Providence indeed, his compassion and cheerfulness... (full context)
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...He notes that, although Delano spent many hours with Cereno, Delano ultimately suspected innocent Cereno—not Babo—to be a murderer. Cereno concludes that these are the effects of well-executed duplicity. He expresses... (full context)
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Babo—whose success in leading the revolt, the narrator emphasizes, depended on his intelligence, not his physical... (full context)
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Months later, Babo was put to death. Although his body was burned, his head was displayed on a... (full context)