Based on a true story, Herman Melville’s 1855 novella Benito Cereno follows American Captain Amasa Delano’s discovery of a ship he first believes to be in distress before realizing, over the course of the same day, that a slave revolt has taken place on it.
Amasa Delano is a naïve, optimistic ship captain from Massachusetts. When he anchors his trading ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, in the harbor of the island of Santa Maria, near Chile, he soon sees a mysterious ship appear. Noticing that the ship is flag-less, in disrepair, and seems in peril, he decides to go offer his help, bringing provisions for what he imagines to be a troubled crew.
Once Delano sets foot on the ship, the San Dominick, he discovers that it is a Spanish slave ship commanded by a strange captain, Don Benito Cereno. Everyone on board—slaves and sailors alike—is distraught and in miserable physical condition. Delano learns that the ship has experienced an epidemic of scurvy then a terrible storm, followed by a long period of calm, which decimated both the sailors and the slaves, ultimately leaving the black slaves much more numerous than the white crew members.
Delano also discovers that Benito Cereno is uncommonly affected by these harrowing experiences. The Spanish captain behaves in unstable ways, alternating rude words, coughing fits, and moments of weakness in which he cannot stand. He is always accompanied by his faithful slave Babo, who supports Cereno at all times. Over time, Delano becomes increasingly annoyed by the intimacy that exists between Cereno and Babo. He finds that, when they speak together, they have a conspiratorial air. Cereno asks Delano strange questions about his ship and sometimes seems to forget the details that he mentioned about the San Dominick’s journey.
In addition to the distraught captain, Delano notices other bizarre occurrences on the ship, where insubordination and disorder seem to reign. Some groups of slaves, the oakum-pickers and hatchet-polishers, play a weak policing role on board, but Delano sees them as eerie, mysterious creatures. On a few occasions, the slaves behave violently toward the Spanish sailors, hitting them in a way that Delano believes should merit immediate punishment. However, weak and apathetic Cereno does nothing about it.
Delano also notices that some Spanish sailors stare at him intently, perhaps trying to communicate a secret to him. However, any time the black slaves intervene in these exchanges, the sailors become shy and quiet. On one occasion, Delano sees a sailor make an intricate knot made of a variety of smaller knots. When Delano interrogates the man about the knot’s purpose, the sailor suddenly throws it to him, telling him in broken English to cut the knot. Delano does not understand what is happening. A slave then arrives, taking the knot from Delano and throwing it in the ocean.
Confused by these events, Delano attempts to reflect on their root causes. He considers various hypotheses. He wonders if Cereno is insane or an impostor plotting to kill him—perhaps even someone who has allied with the black slaves. However, every time Delano examines such theories, he concludes that they are ridiculous, that he is offending his host by nurturing such suspicions, and that everything is probably fine. Intensely concerned with politeness and good manners, Delano resolves to maintain a noble, generous attitude despite the underlying tensions he can sense on the ship.
A crucial factor persuading Delano that everything must be fine on the San Dominick is his conviction that the racial hierarchy is natural and unchangeable. Throughout Benito Cereno, Delano proves deeply racist. He believes that black people are naturally inferior to white people and are meant to serve them as slaves. After a tension-filled shaving scene, in which Babo cuts Cereno’s cheek while shaving him and Babo later shows Delano a wound that Cereno has apparently inflicted on him in retribution, Delano is shocked. Although he concludes that Cereno must be a cruel slave-master, he never realizes that slavery is inherently violent because it dehumanizes slaves and makes them vulnerable to their masters’ whims. Rather, Delano sees Cereno and Babo’s relationship as an intense friendship, marked by alternating moments of love and fighting.
When Delano’s boat finally arrives with provisions, he asks an ever-gloomy Benito Cereno to accompany him to the Bachelor’s Delight, where he might recover physically and mentally from his hardships. Although Cereno refuses, he suddenly jumps into Delano’s boat at the last minute. Still under the impression that Cereno is a suspicious character, Delano believes that Cereno is pretending that he has been kidnapped. It is only once Babo also jumps into the boat, holding a dagger aimed at Cereno, that Delano finally grasps the truth: it is not Cereno, but Babo who has murderous intentions. Looking up at the slaves on the San Dominick, who are now protesting in rage, Delano understands that a slave revolt has taken place on the ship and that, throughout his time on the ship, the black slaves, not the Spanish sailors, were secretly in control. Over the next few hours, Delano’s crew succeeds in subduing the slaves and recapturing the San Dominick.
The narrator then provides excerpts from Benito Cereno’s testimony at the trial that took place in Lima against the rebellious slaves. Cereno explains that Babo was the leader of the slave revolt, assisted by Atufal, an imposing black slave who pretended to be kept in chains. Instead of being the passive, docile slave who confirmed Delano’s racist stereotypes, Babo is in fact a highly intelligent leader capable of extreme cruelty. Babo and Atufal ordered Spanish sailors to be thrown overboard alive and fed to the sharks. Babo also ordered Cereno’s best friend, slave-owner Alexandro Aranda, to be killed and his skeleton placed as the ship’s figure-head. Babo used this corpse as a reminder to the Spanish sailors that, if they rebelled, they would “follow their leader”—that is, die.
The narrator then goes back in time to a conversation Delano and Cereno had on their way to Lima after the recapture of the San Dominick. Noticing that Cereno is still sad and depressed, Delano tries to bolster his spirits by insisting that he is now safe. Cereno, however, is less concerned with personal safety than with moral issues. Traumatized by what he has experienced, Cereno realizes that slavery breeds rage and despair in the slaves, who then prove capable of committing atrocious acts of violence against their enslavers. This thought does not give Cereno rest. His focus on the past emphasizes that it is only by confronting past horrors and injustice that people can prove fully human and moral.
After the trial, Babo—who has refused to talk ever since being captured—and the other slaves are sentenced to capital punishment. Babo’s head is displayed on a public square. Still affected by everything he experienced on the San Dominick, Cereno dies three months later, thus metaphorically “following his leader” to the grave. The identity of this leader—whether Babo or Aranda—is left open to interpretation.