In 1799, an American ship captain, Amasa Delano, from Duxbury, Massachusetts, has anchored his trader ship in a bay near the coast of Chile. The next day, the climate and the general environment around the ship are overwhelmingly dark and mysterious, as the fog, the sea, and the birds flying overhead are all gray. In this foreboding atmosphere, Captain Delano notices a ship enter the bay. Delano is shocked to notice that the boat carries no flag. Although Delano’s ship is in an isolated spot and it is not uncommon to hear violent tales in this area of the world, he remains self-assured and at peace, unwilling to believe that someone could harm him. The narrator notes that, although this signals Delano’s generosity of spirit, readers are invited to make up their mind about his intelligence from this episode.
The opening moments of Benito Cereno are full of symbolism and hidden signals about important themes in the novella and events that are to come. The absence of a flag on the San Dominick is an early indication that there is something piratical about it and that it is not following ordinary, formal procedures. The story will later examine what it means to be a pirate in a period in which slavery is legal—and what types of violence might be legitimate. Delano’s self-confidence despite warning signs of danger is typical of his character. It signals both his natural optimism and his lack of foresight and perceptiveness.
Following the ship’s course, Delano notices that it moves hesitantly and ambiguously, at times coming close to the shore, and at others shifting direction. Delano concludes that this ship might be experiencing difficulties and resolves to help it get to shore. Taking some fish with him to give as a gift, Delano approaches the ship in a boat. Through the thick gray fog, Delano notices that the boat looks like a white European monastery, and he thinks that, from a distance, he can see Dominican monks walking on board. When he finally comes close enough, he realizes that this ship is in fact a Spanish slave ship carrying its cargo through various ports in the colonies.
The gray atmosphere creates not only an atmosphere of mystery, but it also highlights—since gray is a mix of white and black—that this story is going to reveal complex, convoluted racial dynamics, in which confusion about what it means to be “white” or “black” will emerge. Delano’s interpretation of the San Dominick crew as Dominican monks, who wear a uniform made of white and black garments, reinforces this impression that, in a period of slavery, racial dynamics are difficult to analyze separately, when the livelihood of the (white) master depends on the presence of (black) slaves.
Delano notices that the ship is in disrepair. He compares its bare, devastated structure to the bones in Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones. He sees no guns and is not able to recognize a figure-head because that section of the ship is wrapped in fabric. He does, however, notice a blazon decorated with various mythological creatures, including a masked satyr stepping on another masked figure. On the side of the ship, the sentence “Seguid vuestro jefe” (Follow your leader) is written next to the name of the ship, San Dominick.
In the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, God shows a valley of bones to the prophet Ezekiel. After God instructs Ezekiel to breathe into the bones, they miraculously gather together and become alive, covered in flesh. In the Biblical text, this vision represents the future of the people of Israel, who are currently enslaved but will one day be restored physically and spiritually by God. Delano’s comparison thus hints to the slaves’ effort to obtain freedom on the San Dominick.
Delano is able to board the ship and is surprised to note that the black slaves are far more numerous than the Spanish sailors. As soon as he enters, everyone begins to tell him about their misadventures: after an epidemic of scurvy, they suffered violent storms and near shipwreck, followed by a period of extreme calm, which caused them to deplete their provisions without moving forward. The narrator compares Delano’s feelings of surprise and estrangement with the emotions that a traveler might experience upon discovering a new house in a foreign country. This impression is enhanced by the mystery that surrounds ships, which appear and disappear according to the whims of the sea.
Despite noticing that the black slaves are more numerous than the white sailors, Delano does not conceive that this could mean that the actual balance of power is reversed. Rather, the narrator’s mention of a foreign country suggests that Delano is out of his depth in this situation: he believes that this is an ordinary setting, in which the white sailors have more power than the blacks, and does not realize that nothing on the San Dominick reflects what he is used to in the slave society of the U.S. It is precisely Delano’s ignorance that keeps him from being critical in evaluating his surroundings.
In this state of mind, Delano notices bizarre dynamics. He sees a group of “oakum-pickers”: four old black slaves on an elevated deck who, unlike the excited crowd below, are lying down in surreal tranquility, singing drearily as though they were chanting at a funeral, while picking the strands of old ropes to re-use the loose fibers. He also notices six slaves (whom Delano calls “Ashantee conjurors”) polishing hatchets. Delano notes that these men’s attitude is typical of blacks, who always combine work and entertainment. These, he notes, unlike the rest of the group, look like “unsophisticated Africans.”
The groups of black slaves are subtly menacing, both because of their activities (such as polishing hatchets) and their attitudes (singing funeral-like songs), which evoke danger and violence. Although this does make Delano feel uncomfortable, his belief in black people’s lack of intelligence and his passive acceptance of slavery keeps him from understanding that the men’s attitude is mere pretense, allowing them to pretend to be occupied while secretly being prepared to fight.
After observing these characters, Delano seeks the captain of the ship, whom he discovers to be Don Benito Cereno, a gentlemanly Spaniard whose mournful attitude 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 be. Delano offers to help the captain, orders the fish to be brought up, and orders his sailors on the boat to return with water and more provisions.
The comparison of Babo to a dog highlights Delano’s willingness to consider black people inferior and animal-like. By contrast, Delano’s eagerness to share provisions with the San Dominick reveals his generosity and his desire never to behave un-courteously. This suggests that bad qualities (such as racism) can coexist with seemingly good qualities (such as politeness and generosity) in the same person. It is not necessarily easy to distinguish between “good” and “bad” people at first glance.
Grateful that he will be able to speak with the sailors thanks to his knowledge of Spanish, Delano concludes that everyone looks as though they have suffered tremendously. He feels compassion for the slaves and sailors alike, but believes that a more energetic leader than Benito Cereno could probably have prevented the general atmosphere of chaos palpable on the ship. Benito Cereno is visibly weak and distressed, unable to perform basic 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 of blacks, whose docility makes them “less a servant than a devoted companion.” Delano is impressed with Babo’s efficiency, which contrasts so starkly with the other black slaves’ rowdiness and the Spanish sailors’ ineptitude.
Delano’s empathy for the difficulties that everyone on the San Dominick has experienced extends to both the sailors and the slaves. However, Delano’s compassion only derives from what he can see and understand (the idea of scurvy and a storm), as well as the fact that the white people on board are also affected. When it comes to slavery, which Delano has never experienced and which does not affect whites, Delano is incapable to conceive of this system as demeaning or oppressive. Rather, he seems to believe that black people willingly participate in slavery, deriving friendship from it. Furthermore, although his observations about Babo’s skills should lead him to conclude that he is wrong about black people’s lack of intelligence, he remains incapable of reasoning in this way, preferring instead to believe in black people’s inferiority despite evidence to the contrary.
Delano is also frustrated by Benito Cereno’s moodiness and passivity, which makes Cereno behave rudely toward Delano despite Delano’s warm attitude. However, Delano tries to keep from judging Cereno too harshly, reminding himself that the ship captain has experienced physical hardship and that he behaves unpleasantly with everyone on board, regardless 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 can exert on a ship, but in an apathetic, feeble way.
Delano’s perception of other people is generally limited to their social actions. This leads Delano to pay a lot of attention to Cereno’s mood swings rather than to signs of danger that might come from elsewhere. His criticism of Cereno’s apathy also highlights his belief that a captain should enforce a rigid hierarchy to maintain discipline and order on a ship. His focus on hierarchy and convention keeps him from understanding that other people, such as Babo, might actually be in charge.
Delano wonders if Cereno might be behaving this way because he believes that showing detachment gives him more clout. However, Delano notices that episodes revealing unruliness and lack of good manners are common on the ship. Delano concludes that they should be resolved through better policing, which would be able to restore order. Although the old oakum-pickers sometimes intervene to remind their companions to behave, Delano believes that the harsh authority of a sailor would be much more effective.
Once again, Delano is not able to see the oakum-pickers’ disciplinary role as a sign that black people might actually be in control of the ship. His focus on policing reveals a conservative understanding of order and social harmony, based on vertical hierarchy and the threat of force rather than on popular consensus. By focusing solely on good manners, though, Delano does not realize that the lack of discipline reflects much deeper troubles on the ship, which simple policing would not be able to solve.
Curious to better understand the San Dominick’s misadventures, Delano resolves to interrogate the person who would best be able to relate them: the captain. However, when Delano asks Cereno for more details about the San Dominick’s voyage, Cereno is distraught and looks at Delano blankly, as though he has entered a stupor. Cereno recounts that the ship left Buenos Aires for Lima with a cargo of black slaves and other goods. They encountered stormy weather near Cape Horn, which killed some 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 his eyes out of concern.
Babo’s gesture of wrapping his arm around Cereno is misleading. It suggests that Babo is helping Cereno, when he is in fact controlling the Spanish captain, physically and mentally encircling him so that Cereno has to obey Babo’s secret orders. Throughout the story, Babo’s proximity, which he disguises as concern for his master, is nothing but an effort to control Cereno’s every act and remind Cereno that he will never be able to escape. Similarly, every time Cereno is distraught, it is because he is remembering the horrors of the slave revolt, which he cannot communicate to Delano and must instead conceal.
Babo intervenes, lamenting his master’s physical and mental state and saying that Cereno is overwhelmed by the memory of the plague that followed the storm. Cereno then resumes his narrative, recounting the scurvy that killed many sailors and slaves alike. The ship was too damaged to follow its course and was carried to new territory, where the wind suddenly ceased and, in the calm that lasted days, fever broke. Although they tried on various occasions to reach harbor when the winds returned, they drifted back and forth, unable to reach the shore.
Babo’s intervention, which he disguises as compassion, actually serves to remind Cereno of the narrative that he is supposed to tell if he does not want Babo to kill him. The fact that Babo so often seems benevolent, when in fact his compassion is simply a means for him to assert his control over Cereno and the whole situation, shows that a person’s true motives are difficult to discern. In the same way, then, the reader is invited to doubt Delano’s own compassion, which conceals hidden assumptions about power and hierarchy.
At the end of this story, Cereno praises the black slaves for 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 has heard, concludes that Babo is a true friend and cannot be called a slave. He then marvels at the closeness of the two men, as Babo supports his master, keeping him from feeling weak. Noticing the difference in the richness of the two men’s clothing, Delano realizes that Babo, in his pious attitude and humble attire, looks like a Franciscan monk.
In light of the slave revolt that has taken place, Cereno’s words are highly ironic, since the black slaves have proven to be canny and assertive, not benevolent with their captors. Babo and Cereno’s exchange is thus a grotesque show of submission, as Cereno’s praise only underlines his terror of Babo. The conclusions that Delano draws are thus completely mistaken, to the point of becoming ridiculous: where there is oppression and violence, Delano only sees goodwill and friendship. Babo’s seemingly pious attitude only disguises his secret ambitions.
Reflecting on this situation, Delano is struck by Cereno’s description of the terrible calm that the San Dominick experienced and concludes that this must be in part due to inept seamanship. However, Delano then feels guilty for judging Cereno harshly and decides to focus on his compassion for the frail Spanish captain. He reiterates his promise to help Cereno and his crew as best he can, with water, materials to repair the ship, and even sailors who might serve 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 conversation with him. When Cereno returns, he is gloomy again, to Delano’s disappointment.
Delano’s constant fear of having offensive or impolite thoughts keeps him from exercising critical thinking. At the same time, his compassion also suggests that he is willing to re-examine his own thoughts and humbly accept that he does not have the right to judge other people or the capability to fully understand their circumstances. This attitude is not necessarily harmful but, throughout the story, it highlights Delano’s preference to ignore uncomfortable thoughts rather than to reflect deeply on the contradictions he is faced with. Cereno’s excitement about receiving extra white sailors reveals his hope that he might be freed—which Babo then proceeds to crush.
Cereno then invites Delano to follow him to an elevated deck to the rear of the ship, the poop deck, where some pleasant wind might be blowing. Cereno tells Delano to precede him on the ladder, which makes Delano nervous, close to panic, although he cannot explain why. When they safely reach the poop, Delano notices a shocking scene of disobedience: a black slave in a group below, angered by one of the white sailors’ words, hits him with a knife on the head. Cereno dismisses the episode as sport, but Delano says that, on his ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, he would have ordered instant punishment. Delano does not understand Cereno’s apathy and is frustrated by his behavior. He tells Cereno that he should keep his slaves busy at all times, in order to avoid disorder. To Delano’s advice, Cereno mutters that Delano is right, but he fails to act on it.
Cereno’s instinctive panic suggests that there is something on the ship that Cereno subconsciously recognizes as dangerous, even if his thoughts are not able to express it through words. Cereno’s concern about the violence he witnesses contrasts with his later condemnation of the gash that he believes Cereno to have inflicted on Babo’s cheek. In both cases, he condemns the violence as unacceptable. However, it is only when the violence subverts the pre-existing hierarchy that Delano considers it punishable. When violence affects slaves, by contrast, Delano considers it an unfortunate, yet inevitable, aspect of life.
Delano interrogates Cereno about the role of the oakum pickers and the hatchet-polishers, but Cereno answers with vague mutterings. When Delano asks Cereno who owns the slaves, Don Benito replies that his friend Alexandro Aranda used to. Recalling 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 experience of losing a friend while on sea. He notes that, instead of throwing the body to the sharks, he would have been comforted to keep the corpse on board. However, when Delano mentions this, Cereno cries out in shock, terrified, and Babo intervenes, gesturing to Delano that they should change topics so as not to upset his master any more.
Cereno’s mention of Aranda suggests that the ship has already changed leadership once, and that changes in leadership, in Benito Cereno, most often take place through death. Although Delano is well intentioned in trying to comfort Cereno, he does not yet know that his comments about Aranda’s body force Cereno to remember that his friend’s skeleton is on the ship, serving as the figure-head, after Babo ordered Aranda to be brutally killed. In light of the slave revolt, this episode once again highlights Delano’s utter cluelessness, since he has no way of knowing that the deaths on the ship were the result of brutal murders, not illness.
A bell on the ship then rings ten o’clock and an imposing, tall black slave walks toward Benito Cereno. He is kept tied 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 to ask his usual question and Cereno follows his advice, asking Atufal if he is ready to ask his pardon. However, Atufal refuses to ask forgiveness. Despite being chained, he seems to have resigned himself to his situation.
This strange scene seemingly highlights the tyrannical power a slave-owner has over his slaves, as Benito Cereno has kept Atufal chained simply because the man refused to ask for Cereno’s pardon. However, in light of the slave revolt that has actually taken place on the ship, this scene proves grotesque, since Babo and Atufal are actually the ones who hold power of life and death over Cereno, even though Cereno is not visibly kept in chains. This scene thus highlights the cycles of violence that can tie a slave-owner to a slave, and a slave to their former master.
After Atufal leaves, Delano demands an explanation 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 come ask for his forgiveness. When Delano discovers that Atufal has complied with this punishment, he concludes that Atufal must have “a royal spirit in him.” Cereno then notes that Atufal was indeed a monarch in his native country. Babo intervenes, confirming what Cereno has said and adding the he, on the contrary, was already a slave in Africa. Delano is annoyed by Babo’s interruption but Cereno does not return his surprised glance.
Delano’s surprise at Atufal’s “royal spirit” is ambiguous. It suggests that, to be “royal,” one must exhibit patience, resignation and good manners instead of revolting through violence. Although this seemingly endows Atufal with a nobility that Delano’s racist beliefs do not usually attribute to black people, it also emphasizes that slaves should remain passive to emphasize their goodness. The fact that Babo was a slave before being traded by the Spanish highlights the fact that slavery does not only take place between white and black people, but can involve the enslavement of black slaves by black people—and, therefore, that Melville’s narrative aims to criticize slavery in all its forms, regardless of the skin color of the actors involved.
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 Cereno’s neck that can open Atufal’s chains. After Delano makes an innocent, playful comment about Cereno’s key and, by extension, his power over this slave, Cereno seems agitated, and Delano concludes that Cereno must be frustrated not to have succeeded yet in forcing the slave to ask for forgiveness.
Delano’s comment about setting Atufal free seemingly denounces the cruelty of certain types of punishment. However, his point of view is purely pragmatic, aimed at maintaining peace on the ship, and his later joke about Cereno’s power over Atufal suggests that Delano finds certain aspects of slavery amusing. This good humor contrasts darkly with the actual reality: that Cereno has only illusory power over Babo and Atufal.
Afterwards, Cereno and Babo begin to whisper to each other, apart from Delano. He notices that Cereno no longer looks dignified and that Babo has lost his naïve grace. Irked by the two men’s impolite behavior, Delano looks around him and sees a Spanish sailor walk beneath, looking intently at Delano. When Delano looks back at Cereno and Babo, he has the feeling that they have been talking about him. This puts him ill at ease and offends him, as he feels that Cereno has been behaving extremely disrespectfully.
Although the many moments in which Cereno and Babo talk among themselves could alert Delano to the fact that his understanding of hierarchy and power on the San Dominick is more complicated than it appears and that Babo might play an important role in its organization, Delano’s focus on good manners and politeness often keeps him from examining the less superficial aspects of the social behavior he witnesses.
Delano wonders if Cereno’s mysterious behavior could be explained by the fact that he is crazy, since a fully sane, gentlemanly captain would never treat Delano the way Cereno has. He wonders, too, if Cereno might be an impostor, some ordinary sailor pretending to have always been a captain. However, when he looks more carefully at Cereno, Delano concludes that Cereno’s profile looks noble, and that he is probably indeed a Cereno, an important trading family. Feeling guilty for doubting his host, Delano reassures himself by concluding that the true reasons behind Cereno’s behavior might remain unknown, but are probably not harmful. He decides to remain open-minded and civil, so as not to cause offense.
Delano’s attempts to reason about the deep causes of Cereno’s behavior show that he is capable of using his intelligence in a critical way, potentially able to unveil the truth of what is happening on the San Dominick. However, these efforts are always crushed by Delano’s focus on physical appearances. His association of Cereno’s face with nobility shows that he believes that one’s physical appearance and family name are sufficient to determine one’s character—a belief in line with his racist opinions. In addition, his association of critical thinking with an offense to good manners also keeps him from exploring his thoughts further.
Cereno then approaches Delano and interrogates him about his ship. Delano tells him that they have been in this harbor for a couple of days, that he is carrying some goods and silver, and that he has twenty-five men on board. Cereno insists on collecting precise information and asks Delano if these men would be on the ship tonight, as well. Hesitant, not understanding Cereno’s questions, Delano says that some of his men had thought of going fishing at midnight. When Cereno asks, Delano adds that they have some arms in case of emergency. Cereno then keeps quiet and returns to Babo, where he begins to whisper once more.
This scene reveals the extent to which Delano’s politeness could potentially allow others to take advantage of his naïveté. Because of Delano’s previous commitment not to offend his host Cereno, Delano has a warm, sincere attitude, assuming that Cereno is also honest and well intentioned when, in fact, Cereno is dissembling as he follows Babo’s orders. Once again, Delano’s underlying belief—based on racism and naïveté—that a black slave like Babo could never be in charge keeps him from even contemplating that possibility.
Finding that Babo and Cereno look like conspirators and confused about Cereno’s questions, Delano once again begins to wonder if Cereno might have ulterior motives. Despite Delano’s naturally trusting personality, he becomes suspicious again. Adopting a cheerful attitude, he asks Cereno about the strikingly close relationship the Spanish captain has with his black slave, who behaves like a personal counselor. Cereno looks dismayed and, after composing himself, tells Delano that he does indeed trust Babo. Babo, in turn, smiles at Delano and, after his master’s reply, modifies what Delano perceives as an animal-like smile into one that reveals intelligence. Cereno becomes gloomy again but Delano, committed to behaving courteously, makes a pleasant comment before walking off on his own.
Even when Delano proves suspicious of Cereno and Babo’s relationship, he never once considers that Babo could be the one in control. Instead, Delano focuses on Cereno’s potential craziness or hidden motives, as well as on the ways that Cereno has offended him. This highlights the deeply limiting effects that racism has on the mind, as it keeps Delano from understanding that everyone on board, including the slaves, are capable of intelligent, devious deeds. Even Delano’s perception that Babo can shift from appearing passive and stupid to displaying quickness of mind does not alert Delano to the fact that Babo might be pretending to be someone he is not.
Delano walks off for a few moments and notices a young Spanish sailor hide a glittering object from view. Realizing that this is the same man Delano had noticed before, Delano wonders if that man is hiding a secret, some precious object he has stolen. Moved by these suspicious thoughts, Delano reflects again on Cereno’s odd questions. At every one of his thoughts, Delano notices that the old black slaves whom he calls the “wizards of Ashantee” strike their hatchets, which contributes to the overall eerie atmosphere.
Paradoxically, all of Delano’s suspicions relate to white people’s behaviors. The sailor’s glittering object is only a partial clue to what has happened on the San Dominick, since, as Cereno later explains, it is a precious jewel that the sailor intends to bring to a shrine Lima as a sign of gratitude for surviving. By contrast, it is the hatchet-polishing slaves who should actually arouse Delano’s interest, since their actions highlight the underlying violence capable of exploding on the ship.
Influenced by this foreboding environment, Delano feels uncomfortable about Cereno. He wonders if this ship is a pirate ship, although he immediately tries to reassure himself, noting that it is unlikely that a ship reduced to such a miserable state would make plans for anything but water and food. At the same time, he wonders if part of the crew might be hidden somewhere, waiting to attack. Although Delano is aware of many stories involving pirates, he has never fully believed them. Reflecting on Cereno’s attitude and mode of speech, Delano concludes that there is a deceptive quality to him, which suggests that he may be lying. At the same time, everyone on the ship—through both their words and their aspect—constitutes proof that Cereno’s narrative must be true. Otherwise, Delano reflects, every single person on the ship would be lying and pretending to be something they are not, which is too absurd to believe.
Once again, even though Delano’s instincts take him on the right track (becoming suspect of everyone’s behavior around him, and realizing that people’s attitudes might be simulated), he ultimately disregards his suspicions by appealing to a reassuring idea of the world, one in which large groups of people are not capable of horrible brutality and dishonesty. Delano’s difficulty to believe in such catastrophic scenarios as pirates or a slave revolt highlights the relative infrequency of such events, but also reveals Delano’s tendency to discard information that might challenge his vision of the world as a fair, peaceful place.
Delano ultimately tells himself that Cereno must simply be too unwell to know what he is doing, and that his strange questions might simply reflect the dreary state of his mind. Delano thus plans to take Cereno to his ship, where the Spanish captain would be able to rest and recover some strength. Although he is reassured by these thoughts, Delano still finds comfort in seeing his boat appear in the distance. At the sight of the boat, the black slaves become excited and Cereno walks toward Delano, telling him that it will be agreeable to receive more supplies.
Delano’s compassion and desire to help others is evident in his attitude toward Cereno, since Delano ultimately feels more pity than anger for the Spanish captain. At the same time, Delano’s body and mind signal to him something that his thoughts do not: that, despite his attempts to reassure himself, he is still disturbed by everything he has witnessed on the San Dominick and hopes to return to normalcy among his own crew.
As the boat approaches, Delano witnesses another scene of disorder on the San Dominick: two black slaves violently attack one of the sailors, to the loud protests of 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 his helpful behavior. Interested in benefiting from such service himself, Delano asks Cereno if he might sell him his slave. He offers Cereno fifty doubloons but Babo softly whispers that his master would never leave him. Cereno suffers from a new coughing attack and mutters an unintelligible reply. His physical state does not improve, so Babo takes him below deck.
Delano’s willingness to buy Babo explicitly reveals that, despite Delano’s apparent geniality toward blacks, he is not inherently opposed to slavery and might actually enjoy being a slave-master himself. This highlights the moral contradictions at play in this character: although Delano believes himself to be morally irreproachable, kind, and fair, he does not realize that forcing others into slavery is cruel and morally offensive. Instead, he prefers to think of slavery as an ordinary form of service that black people provide white people with.
Delano wonders if he should chat with some sailors, but remembers one of Cereno’s comments about their ill behavior and decides that he does not want to interact with unpleasant beings. However, he soon notices that some sailors are turning to him on purpose, as though searching for his glance. Delano’s worries return and he leaves the poop, hoping to converse with some of the sailors. As he walks through a group of black slaves to do so, the oakum-pickers let out a cry and other slaves, like guards, accompany Delano through the crowd. Delano says a few cheerful words to the slaves and observes the white sailors attentively.
Through his refusal to chat with the sailors, Delano once again proves that he prefers to avoid potential discomfort instead of delving deep into it in order to discover the truth. The black slaves’ reaction to his approach suggests that they have set up a security system meant to keep Delano from hearing the true version of what has happened on the San Dominick through the sailors. However, Delano once again proves oblivious to the potential threat the black people’s behavior might imply, because he does not take them seriously as full human beings with their own hidden motives.
While searching for a sailor to talk with, Delano notices one whose hand has turned black from constantly handling tar. Concerned by the ghastly look he notices in that man, which could perhaps be attributed to criminal deeds, Delano finds someone else to chat with. Finally, Delano finds a sailor working on splicing a rope in a group with black slaves. When Delano talks to him, the man looks up with a bashful air and answers Delano’s questions shyly. His replies confirm details of the ship’s voyage that Cereno had previously given Delano. The man soon stops talking when black slaves join him, and Delano concludes that he cannot talk peacefully with sailors as long as black slaves are near. Delano does not understand why this sailor, whom he believes to be one of the men who had stared carefully at him earlier, proved so timid.
The fact that one of the sailor’s hands has turned black with tar is symbolic. It suggests that the white men on board now have the status that the black slaves had: because of the slave revolt, the crew is now subject to the violent authority of the slaves. Delano’s association of misery with criminality makes him incapable of recognizing despair for what it is. Delano does not realize that the black slaves are not a mere nuisance, but integral parts of what is happening on the San Dominick, since their presence is meant to control what the sailors are able to communicate to Delano and to remind them that they could easily be killed for trying to tell the truth.
After leaving the group, Delano runs into a slave mother lying down while her child is climbing over her, trying to reach her breast. The mother then lifts her child and kisses it. Delano finds this scene endearing, full of love. He concludes that “uncivilized” women have soft feelings but strong bodies. He admires their devotion, concluding that they seem capable of sacrificing themselves for their children.
Delano’s attitude toward black people is driven by condescension and a feeling of superiority. He cannot conceive of slaves’ intellectual and emotional life beyond what he considers to be primitive, unsophisticated instincts. This keeps him from understanding that even a seemingly passive, innocent mother wants her child to be free and would thus support a slave rebellion.
Delano then looks for his boat, notices it is still far away, and decides to walk around the ship. In a gallery, he admires the elegant decorations, typical of the Spanish empire, and leans against the balustrade of a balcony. He imagines himself captive in an exotic castle, looking out at empty roads. Suddenly, he notices a Spanish sailor walk and point to him before disappearing below deck. Delano wonders if the man was trying to communicate a secret to him.
The elegance of the ship highlights the wealth and prestige of the Spanish Empire—a world power whose survival and growth depends on violently subjugating colonies and exploiting their resources. The external richness of such an empire contrasts with its brutal methods, such as the trading of innocent slaves.
Delano searches for his boat again and is frustrated to see that it is currently hidden by a rock. Leaning over, he almost falls but catches a rope in time, realizing that otherwise he would have fallen into the water. Delano then reflects on the fact that Cereno has disappeared and wonders if he is plotting something. He also wonders about Cereno’s praise of the black slaves on board. He believes that Cereno might have intentionally disparaged his white sailors because he knew they might reveal something of his plotting.
Although it has nothing to do with the slave rebellion, Delano’s near-accident highlights how easily death can arise. It suggests that Delano is not necessarily safe from danger and that seemingly innocuous acts can prove more threatening than expected. Once again, Delano’s suspicions are off-target, since he believes that Cereno, not Babo, is trying to deceive him.
Delano then reflects that whites are “the shrewder race.” He wonders if Cereno might secretly be allied with the black slaves, but concludes that this idea makes no sense because black people are not intelligent enough. Delano then notices an old, wrinkled Spanish sailor working on a knot. Delano realizes that the knot is in fact a combination of various kinds of nautical knots. Confused, he asks the man what he is making but the sailor simply replies: “The knot.” Delano presses him, asking him what its utility might be, and the man replies that he is making it “for some one else to undo.” Then, the man suddenly throws Delano the knot, telling him in English to cut it as fast as he can.
Although Delano’s racism was evident in some of his previous thoughts, here his refusal to acknowledge black people’s intelligence is direct and explicit. It is this thought that keeps him from conceiving that black slaves could revolt, which keeps him from ever approaching the truth. The knot serves as a symbolic illustration of the tangled situation on board that Delano could potentially solve if he understood its complexity. The sailor’s gesture is a hidden plea for help that Delano, focused on appearing cheerful and talkative, does not understand.
Delano is too confused to know what to do. Atufal is now standing near Delano. The old sailor returns to his previous task and soon disappears to another section of the ship. An old slave then approaches, telling Delano in Spanish that the sailor is a bit slow-minded but innocuous. He retrieves the knot from Delano and throws it overboard, after muttering something to himself.
The slave’s gesture of throwing out the knot highlights his fear that, through the sailor’s cryptic messages, Delano might understand what is going on. It also serves a symbolic purpose, revealing that the slaves have sought to eliminate the knots that have tied them to their masters for so long by metaphorically throwing the knot overboard—that is, by upending the entire system and launching a revolt.
Although Delano finds the whole situation unnerving, he decides to ignore it, preferring not to be disturbed by such mysteries. He looks out and is glad to notice that his boat is now visible once more. Delano associates this boat with the feeling of home, because he always leaves it near his house. Feeling comforted, he laughs at his old suspicions, concluding that he could never be killed on this ship because “his conscience is clean.”
As usual, Delano’s thoughts aim not to pry into the problems around him, but simply to reassure himself so that he might feel peaceful and at ease. His belief that he will be spared violence because he feels morally pure is naïve and ignorant, since it denies the possibility of injustice, implicitly arguing that the only people who suffer are those who deserve it.
Babo then arrives, telling Delano that Cereno invites him below deck. Happy about this unexpected turn of events, which confirms that Cereno is well intentioned and not nearly as dangerous or disrespectful as Delano has feared, Delano concludes that these periods of calm on the sea must confuse the mind, causing one to experience more fear and confusion than in other times. Looking around him, Delano realizes that it must be around noon, but that the fog and the cloudy sky make it seem much later.
Once again, Delano confuses politeness for sincerity. Cereno’s invitation does not necessarily imply that he is deprived of evil intentions, but Delano chooses to understand good manners as a reflection of honesty. This blindly optimistic attitude contrasts with Delano’s surrounding environment, in which fog and clouds create an ominous atmosphere, suggesting that reality might not be as transparent as it seems.
Walking toward Cereno’s lodgings, Delano is annoyed to realize that the calm seas will make it difficult for his boat to arrive as fast as it could otherwise. This frustration leads his previous negative emotions to return. Although he cannot fully eliminate these feelings, he forces himself to see things in a positive light. He tells himself that there are indeed abnormal things happening on this ship, which has an odd history, but that there is nothing more to it. Delano tells himself that Cereno is simply a temperamental captain, typical of Spaniards, and that most Spaniards are not inherently evil. Suddenly, Delano’s boat comes near, which makes Delano happy.
Delano’s tendency to ignore past events and focus on an optimistic outlook of the future eliminates the possibility of true reflection. Delano’s attribution of bizarre events to cultural identity, such as Cereno’s Spanish background, shows a willingness to understand that other people might have different customs from his own. At the same time, it also functions as a broad (and misled) generalization about people’s personality based on superficial characteristics such as their nationality.
Cereno then appears and Delano asks him if he can organize the sharing of provisions, so that no one might take too many or otherwise be inefficient. Cereno reacts with apparent annoyance, and Delano concludes that he must not appreciate people taking over his role. When the boxes are lifted and some black slaves accidentally push Delano, Delano suddenly asserts his authority by lifting his hand in a cheerful, yet threatening gesture. This causes all the black slaves to stand still for a few seconds, shocked. The hatchet-polishers suddenly rise, Cereno gives out a cry and Delano immediately thinks that he is going to be killed. However, he calms down and, with gentle movements, makes both the sailors and slaves stand back. The hatchet-polishers sit down again and Delano notices that Cereno has fallen into the arms of his servant again. Delano is shocked to realize that he, too, panicked in the heat of the moment.
Although Delano has tried to convince himself that nothing threatening is happening on the San Dominick, his body reacts in a way that runs contrary to Delano’s self-reassurance: by showing fear and an understanding that there is something dangerous taking place here, capable of getting him killed. The scene also serves as a direct indication to Delano that he does not necessarily have the power or authority to control the slaves, and that the hierarchy of control might be more complex than he thought. Delano’s gestures, which mix warmth and potential aggressiveness, are typical of Delano’s attitude toward black slaves: outwardly convivial, yet secretly domineering.
Finally, when the boxes are on deck, Delano begins to distribute water impartially to both the black slaves and white sailors. He saves extra water for Cereno but Cereno only drinks a little bit before returning it. Delano wants to serve special items, such as soft bread and cider, to the white sailors only, but Cereno insists on sharing it in the 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 to stay in the boat, afraid that their presence on the San Dominick would only increase the disorder. He sends his boat back to the Bachelor’s Delight, telling his chief officer that he will pilot the San Dominick back, even if it takes him part of the night to do so.
Delano’s sharing of provisions proves only partially egalitarian, since he does ultimately favor the white sailors over the black slaves. Cereno’s reaction highlights a certain vision of equality, in which white and black people are treated in the same way, even if Cereno is only behaving out of coercion and fear of Babo. Delano’s appreciation of this gesture is highly ironic, since he did not want to perform it himself. This suggests that Delano is only interested in equality as an expression of politeness and generosity, not as a right that all human beings should share, regardless of race.
Delano then laments that Cereno has no boats. Cereno says that they were lost in the storm and, when Delano asks him if this happened at Cape Horn, Cereno is startled. 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 that Delano could follow them below to keep on chatting. Delano finds this shaving custom strange, but attributes it to Babo’s meticulousness and diligence.
Once again, Delano does not realize that Babo’s interventions are meant to conceal Cereno’s contradictions and fears, so that the slave rebellion might remain a secret. Instead, Delano prefers to trust in the stereotype that black slaves such as Babo are concerned not with their own free will, but with the efficient service they want to deliver to their masters.
When Delano sees Cereno’s cabin, he finds find it small and packed, as it serves various functions, from dormitory to chapel. When Delano expresses his surprise about this, 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 slaves are naturally talented and inclined to become servants, because they are both graceful and lighthearted. Delano surmises that God must have aligned black people’s movements with gentle, peaceful music.
The fact that, despite supposedly being the leader of the San Dominick, Cereno’s living area resembles more a prison cell than a comfortable bedroom should alert Delano to the idea that Cereno might not have as much power as Delano thinks. His racist view about black people’s gentleness and skill merely serves to justify the oppression of foreign peoples. This view is all the more ironic given the fact that Babo is only behaving pleasantly in order to better fool Delano.
Delano adds that black people are naturally meant to become slaves because their minds are limited and they are more likely to become dependent on other human beings who are superior to them. Delano, who considers himself warmhearted, describes his enjoyment at seeing a free man of color take part in everyday tasks near his house in Massachusetts. Delano notes that he always treats black sailors in an affectionate, playful way. The narrator concludes that Delano behaves with black people not with a sense of charity, but with genuine cheer, in the same way others might behave with Newfoundland dogs. On the San Dominick, Delano has been too nervous to fully express these sympathies, but in Cereno’s cabin he now feels comfortable enough to remember his appreciation of black people.
Delano does not realize that, instead of depicting him as a kind, just man, his racist views about black people’s intelligence only highlights how ignorant and patronizing he is, since he is not capable of grasping that black people are just as fully human, complex, and independent as white people. Instead, the fact that Delano is used to seeing black people in a situation of inferiority has convinced him that they are inferior and are meant to serve white people. By showing that Delano sees black people as beings comparable to dogs, the narrator reveals that Delano’s superficial kindness to black people is not a sign of moral value, but a way to disguise Delano’s feelings of superiority.
As Babo prepares to shave Cereno, Delano is entertained by Babo’s decision to set a small colored piece of cloth underneath Cereno’s chin instead of an ordinary apron, which Delano believes must reflect black people’s love of bright colors. Delano observes Babo’s careful movements when shaving the master in what Delano considers to be a typically Spanish style. Cereno begins to shake as soon as he sees the razor blade. In the amused, detached way of an outside observer, Delano notes that it almost looks as though Cereno is a condemned prisoner about to be beheaded by Babo. Suddenly, Delano realizes that the material under Cereno’s chin is nothing other than a Spanish flag. He jokes that they are lucky the King of Spain cannot see this and playfully concludes that the colors are vivid, at least.
Delano’s belief that Babo has chosen the Spanish flag as an apron because of its bright colors highlights his absurd, racist preconceptions about black people. In fact, Babo’s choice of the flag is undoubtedly deliberate. It serves a symbolic function, allowing Babo to remind Cereno that Babo is now in charge of the ship, not the Spanish sailors. It’s also likely meant to desecrate the Spanish empire, which is responsible for enslaving Babo. Delano’s assumption that black people are ignorant and stupid keeps him from understanding the threat implicit in Babo’s actions.
Performing his duties as a barber, Babo reminds Cereno not to shake because it makes Babo more likely to cut him. Babo reminds Delano to resume their previous conversation about the storm, and Delano explains that he does find Cereno’s description of two whole months of calm seas incredible. Cereno then appears startled and, whether he shuddered or whether Babo made a wrong movement, blood appears on Babo’s razor, prompting him to gently scold his master, telling him that this is Babo’s “first blood.” At this sight, Cereno proves utterly terrified. Delano feels pity for Cereno, who is so weak that he cannot even stand such a small and ordinary amount of blood. When Babo is finally done, Delano observes the slave’s contented air and concludes that it looks as though Cereno were a creature of Babo’s creation, at least temporarily.
The shaving scene is full of underlying tension. Although Delano believes it to be an ordinary procedure, readers who are aware of Babo’s actual role as ringleader of a slave revolt understand the threatening nature of his acts. It remains ambiguous whether Babo intentionally draws blood or whether this represents an honest mistake but, either way, this episode serves as a reminder to Cereno of the extreme brutality that Babo is capable of. In fact, Babo’s innocent attitude throughout this scene is eerie and grotesque, since he is in fact responsible for so many murders since the slave rebellion took place.
Noticing that 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 voice, he tells Delano that Cereno has struck him with the razor in retribution for Babo’s earlier mistake. Delano is shocked to hear this and concludes that slavery does indeed corrupt the hearts of men. When Cereno comes out, though, he leans on Babo as usual, and Delano concludes that their relationship is akin to a romantic relationship, full of love and fights.
Delano’s shock at seeing the violence that Babo has supposedly been a victim of (when, in fact, it is likely that Babo has hit himself to make Delano believe that he is the victim) seemingly highlights Delano’s moral qualities, since he is capable of feeling compassion for a black slave. However, the fact that Delano only shows pity at the visible signs of slavery-related violence and considers Cereno and Babo’s relationship quasi romantic reveals how little he understands slavery to be cruel and demeaning, even in the absence of such explicit forms of violent punishment.
A young, biracial servant, Francesco, then announces lunch. Noticing the boy’s beauty and agreeable voice, Delano asks Cereno if he is a good man. Delano gives a laconic positive answer, in a reluctant tone, and Cereno understands his words as a confirmation of his beliefs: that 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 American blood.
Delano does not realize that Cereno’s laconic responses do not actually reflect his inner thoughts, but indicate that Cereno is merely playing a part. Instead, Delano decides that Cereno’s answer, however unenthusiastic, confirms his racist beliefs. This shows how easily Delano can be convinced that the views he holds are true. People, Melville suggests, are more likely to seek confirmation of their beliefs in the world than to be open to questioning them.
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 to better anticipate his master’s desires. During the lunch, Delano again interrogates Cereno about the ship’s misadventures, and wonders why so many more whites than blacks died from scurvy and fever. After looking lost, Cereno says that the constitution of black people is stronger than that of whites, and that they were therefore more resistant to disease. Delano has never heard this before and finds it curious.
Once again, Delano assumes that all of Babo’s behaviors are meant to serve Cereno efficiently, because Delano is incapable of imagining that Babo might have hidden motives of his own. Despite his identification of contradictions in Cereno’s narrative, Delano is uniquely likely to trust in the Spanish captain’s explanation because he will believe anything Cereno says about racial differences as long as they conform to his own beliefs.
During the lunch, Delano hopes to be 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 slaves—and that he will stay by his side. Delano finds this annoying, but becomes excited when he notices that a breeze has returned, capable of directing the ship in the right decision. Seeing how weak and emotionless Cereno seems, Delano insists that he will take control of the situation.
Once again, Babo’s interference in affairs that Delano believes should only concern the ship captain fails to arouse his suspicion, because Delano is neither willing nor capable of putting into doubt his assumptions about power and hierarchy on the San Dominick. At the same time, Delano’s chivalry comes to light once again, highlighting his desire to help the vulnerable people around him.
Delano thus leaves the cabin and, upon exiting it, is shocked to run into the huge figure of Atufal, who is standing 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 his initial role as captain of the slaves. Impressed by everyone’s efficiency, Delano concludes that the slaves could become good sailors with adequate training. When everything seems in order, Delano hurries back to Cereno’s cabin, hoping to talk to him alone. However, as soon as he arrives, he hears footsteps on the opposite side of the room, and is surprised and irritated to realize that Babo has taken an alternative route to return to Cereno. Delano suddenly associates Babo with Atufal in his mind and feels uneasy.
Delano’s surprise at how well both sailors and slaves are following his orders suggests that he has largely underestimated their capacities. Similarly, his pleasure at seeing Babo in charge reveals that Babo is resourceful and good at playing two roles at once. However, Delano does not understand that Babo’s presence is meant to reassure the slaves and remind the sailors that he—not white men such as Delano—is still in charge. Delano’s association of Babo with Atufal once again confirms that his intuitive reactions of fear are correct, since they are capable of leading him to truths (such as the fact that Babo and Atufal might be allied and dangerous) that his rational mind does not want to imagine.
Delano then informs Cereno that Atufal is waiting outside the door. Cereno shows fear but explains that Atufal must indeed wait for Cereno to come out. In a playful way, Delano chides Cereno, telling him that he is a cruel slave-master. Cereno’s sullen reaction convinces Delano that, this time, Cereno’s conscience might be affected by Delano’s words.
As usual, Delano considers himself morally superior to others. In this case, he believes that Cereno’s harsh punishment makes him cruel. Delano, however, does not seem to consider that his own desires to own a slave make him just as domineering and cruel.
As the hours go by and Delano finally sees his ship nearby, he invites Cereno to come with him to the Bachelor’s Delight, where the Spanish captain will be able to rest. Although Cereno initially shows joy at this suggestion, he tells Delano, with a bitter voice, that he cannot go. Delano does not understand his reticence and feels offended.
Delano’s focus on good manners once again diverts his focus from the heart of the issue. It also fuels Delano’s belief that he is morally superior to others, since he is being polite and generous but Cereno is proving highly ungrateful.
Still hurt by Cereno’s moody behavior, Delano prepares to board his ship without insisting that Cereno join him. Leaving the cabin, Delano feels angst return inside of him. He still does not understand why Cereno’s moment of joy was so brief and why the Spanish captain is not accompanying him to his ship. Delano compares Cereno to a Jew, whom he considers likely to share meals with people he plans to deceive.
Once again, Delano’s entire worldview is shaped by his division of people into racial categories to which he attributes fixed characteristics. In this case, he proves anti-Semitic in his association of all Jewish people with treason—a tradition of anti-Semitic thought that considers Jews guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Walking from the dark corridor into the light, Delano feels revived and chides himself for doubting the powers of Providence. He concludes that, even if Cereno is incomprehensible, Delano himself must be proud of his good deeds, which bolster his moral conscience. With one foot in his boat, Delano suddenly hears his name called out. He is glad to see Cereno walk toward him, wishing him well, hoping that God may protect Delano better than him. Moved, Delano is inclined to stay but follows Babo’s silent indication to leave.
Delano’s trust in Providence does not necessarily guide him to perform morally virtuous deeds. Rather, in the same way that he so often uses his own thoughts to reassure himself in moments of stress, Delano uses the idea of Providence as comfort. It allows him to believe that the world is inherently just for all and that he, as a uniquely moral being, will be protected from harm. This highlights Delano’s propensity towards arrogance and self-delusion.
Delano orders the boat to leave and, as soon as he does so, Cereno jumps into the boat, yelling incomprehensibly. Some Spanish sailors jump into the water to join their captain. Delano’s reaction is anger. He believes that Cereno is pretending that he has been kidnapped and is encouraging his sailors and servants to assassinate Delano. Seemingly confirming 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 him. However, Babo then extracts a second, hidden dagger, and tries to attack Cereno, who is crawling away.
After hours of suspicion and underlying tension, violence finally explodes on the San Dominick, shattering Delano’s illusions that the world is a peaceful place and that the mysteries he witnessed on board were never dangerous. Despite his tendency to ignore discomfort, Delano proves brave and authoritative when faced with physical danger. He does not hesitate to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Babo, despite not understanding the exact nature of what is happening.
In that moment, 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 Cereno. Looking up to Cereno’s ship, Delano grasps that the black slaves are angry and uncontrolled not because there is bad policing on the San Dominick, but because the slaves have taken part in a revolt that Delano calls “piratical.” The black slaves are raising weapons, such as knives, and keeping the remaining white sailors from escaping.
Finally, now that Delano understands the truth, it becomes evident that his racial bias, his embrace of traditional hierarchy, and his desire to trust in innocence and peace have completely skewed his views of what was taking place on the San Dominick. Delano’s description of the revolt as piratical highlights that the slaves are behaving outside the confines of the law. However, Delano never considers that slavery, too, is inherently piratical, since it steals people in other countries and sells them as slaves.
As the boat moves away from the San Dominick, Delano finally sees the human skeleton used as a figure-head, set above the ship’s motto: Follow your leader. Cereno cries out that this is the body of his 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 also orders the swimming sailors to be rescued.
The association of leadership (the figure-head) with death (Aranda’s skeleton) has dark undertones. It suggests that following one’s leader blindly, without examining the moral nature of one’s actions (such as taking part in slavery), might lead to nothing more than violence, death, and destruction.
Delano proceeds to plan the capture of the San Dominick. Cereno says that a Spanish sailor put the ship’s guns out of use at the beginning of the slave revolt but also adds that the black slaves are likely to kill all the remaining white sailors if anyone tries to board the ship—a warning that Delano disregards, believing that Cereno’s mind is too unstable to be trustworthy.
Although Delano has already overcome his surprise at discovering that a slave revolt has taken place on the San Dominick, he remains unable to grasp the extent to which violence and cruelty has reigned on board. His inability to conceive of evil keeps him from trusting Cereno’s warning.
Delano decides that the boats will be more effective than the ship to chase the San Dominick. When he is about to step into one, Cereno stops him, unwilling to let Delano put his life at risk again. Captain Delano ultimately decides to stay, for practical reasons, and sends his chief mate in his stead. When Delano’s men approach the San Dominick and begin shooting at the ship with their muskets, the black slaves react aggressively yet prove unable to respond as effectively without guns. They cut off a white sailor’s fingers and try to cut off Delano’s boat’s ropes with hatchets.
The violence that has been an underlying tension, and that Cereno will later recount in detail in his testimony, is here explicit and undisguised. Desperate to maintain their power, the slaves use violence in strategic ways (such as cutting the ropes) but also as a punitive, gratuitous measure against the white sailors. The inadequacy of the slaves in a battle with guns highlights their tragic situation, as it becomes apparent early on that they are unlikely to beat Delano’s men.
Delano’s men tell the Spanish sailors, who are hiding as high as they can, to cut off the ship’s sails, which will make it easier for the boat to pursue the San Dominick in fast waters. In the meantime, various people are killed, including Atufal and two Spanish sailors who looked as though they were allied with the black slaves. Finally, the mates on the boats board the San Dominick after one of them cries out to “Follow your leader!” After harsh, hand-to-hand combat, about twenty black slaves are killed, whereas only some of Delano’s men are wounded. The sailors ultimately succeed in bringing the San Dominick back into the harbor.
The sailor’s call for the mates to follow their leader is a repetition of a sentence Babo had used earlier as a threat, warning the Spanish sailors that they will be killed (like their leader Aranda) if they rebel. In this case, the mate does not mean it as a threat. However, the end result of this action is likely to be the same as Babo’s threat, since “following one’s leader” here inevitably involves taking part in violence and risking one’s life. As it becomes clear later, the two sailors who were killed early on were actually manipulated by the slaves to appear on their side, which the sailors knew would get them killed by Delano’s men.
Over the next few days, the two ships sail together to Chile then Lima, Peru, their final destination, where the vice-regal courts launch a legal investigation against the San Dominick slaves. Cereno, whose health had improved while on the water but has deteriorated since reaching Lima, is welcomed into a monastery, where members of a religious institution take care of him. The narrator then transcribes part of the official Spanish documents used in the court case. The first one contains Cereno’s testimony. Although his words were initially subject to doubt, because of his mental agitation, other sailors later confirmed his narrative. Otherwise, the court would have had to reject a narrative put forth by only one person.
In a legal setting, where slaves are given barely any rights, a slave revolt is not seen as morally justified, but is condemned as an illegal act. Although the system might appear fair—for example, by doubting the validity of a single person’s testimony and requiring multiple witnesses—it is inherently skewed against the slaves, who are never given a voice to defend themselves. Cereno’s retirement to a monastery is ironic since, at the beginning of the story, Delano compared the San Dominick to one—when it was, in fact, the very opposite of peaceful and safe. This suggests that religious institutions are perhaps not as isolated from the rest of the political and social world as they are commonly believed to be, but perhaps participate in some of the world’s problems.
The official document, written by a notary, declares that the criminal case against the black slaves on the San Dominick began on September 24, 1799. Cereno, the first witness, declares that the San Dominick left Chile on May 20, 1798, with thirty-six crew members, various goods to trade, and 160 slaves belonging to Alexandro Aranda. Cereno lists some of the black slaves on the ship, including Francesco and Babo.
This is the first time in Benito Cereno that a perspective not marked by Delano’s opinions is able to come forth. Although hearing another angle of the story gives it greater complexity, it remains obvious that other crucial actors are excluded from this process of establishing the truth: Babo and the other slaves.
Cereno explains that the slaves were not kept in chains because Aranda judged them to be docile. After a week of navigation, the slaves suddenly organized a rebellion, killing eighteen crew members, either with weapons (such as hatchets) or by tying them up and throwing them into the water alive. They 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 assuring them that he would obey their orders. However, the leaders of the rebellion threw more men overboard anyway. Babo asked Cereno to take the slaves back to Senegal. Although Cereno argued that this could not be done, because of the distance involved and the lack of provisions, Babo insisted, threatening to kill all the white sailors on board if their wish was not granted. They agreed to try to reach a coast to replenish their water supply—which Cereno hoped would allow them to come across a helpful Spanish ship.
It remains ambiguous whether Aranda, like Delano, mistakenly believed that black people were inherently docile and obliging, or whether his decision not to chain the slaves was an act of relative generosity. Either way, Aranda, like Delano, underestimated the amount of resentment and fury that slavery breeds, even when the slaves are not chained. The violent killings that took place on the ship are undoubtedly brutal and cruel, but they also highlight the desperation that drives the slaves’ actions. In the absence of a system that establishes trust and legitimacy for both white and black people, black slaves have no guarantee that their orders and their white slave-owners’ words will be respected, since slaves are not considered full human beings with rights. Therefore, their only weapon to force their former masters into submission is violence.
After many fruitless days, Babo threatened once more to kill the white men on board if Cereno tried to reach any human settlement on shore. Cereno agreed to go to the island of Santa Maria, which was uninhabited. In the meantime, after daily strategic discussions with Atufal, Babo announced that they would kill Alexandro Aranda as a safety measure, in order to remind the Spanish sailors not to rebel. Although Cereno begged him not to do so, since Aranda was his childhood friend, Babo ordered two Ashantee men to murder Aranda with hatchets. Babo stopped them from throwing the half-conscious body in the water, wanting to witness Aranda’s death himself.
Although Babo’s behavior is undoubtedly cruel, his orders to kill seem motivated by strategic necessity more than a simple desire for destruction. In this sense, his behavior replicates the domination that slave-masters exert over slaves, in which violence is often justified in pragmatic terms, as a means to punish slaves and to protect one’s own interests. Babo proves just as willing to disregard human lives as many slave-owners do with regard to their slaves, thus reversing the racial dehumanization at play.
Four days later, after Babo threw some more sailors overboard and Cereno begged Babo daily to tell him where Aranda’s body was, Babo finally showed Cereno a skeleton, set in the place of the ship’s former figure-head, a statue of Christopher Columbus. Babo implied that the white bones reflected the dead man’s whiteness, and Cereno, horrified, understood that this was the body of his friend Aranda. Babo then threatened Cereno, telling him that if he did not bring the slaves back to Senegal, Cereno would “follow [his] leader.” He repeated such a speech to every remaining Spanish sailor on board.
Babo’s injunction to follow one’s leader is ironic and threatening. Instead of reflecting elevated values, such as faithfulness and shared principles, it merely means dying. This view of what it means to follow one’s leader—blindly sacrificing one’s life for no apparent reason—is deeply cynical. It suggests that, in a context such as slavery (and the slave rebellion that is an aspect of it), leadership can be nothing but brutal and senseless, intent on destroying the lives of other beings.
After a few days, Cereno offered to sign a contract in which he committed to taking them 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.
Babo’s apparent lack of trust in Cereno’s contract is both surprising and logical. In a legal setting, indeed, this contract has no value, since slaves are neither citizens nor full humans with ordinary rights.
The narrator then includes selected extracts from Cereno’s narrative. In them, Cereno notes that the calm seas drove many men mad, causing the slaves to kill the last navigator on the ship except for Cereno. Finally, after 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, after threatening Cereno with death if he did not obey his orders, devised a plan to dupe Captain Delano. He set six Ashantee men on the deck, who would distribute hatchets if needed. He also pretended to keep Atufal in chains, and put four older black men in charge of maintaining some order.
The underlying reason that Babo’s plan to trick Delano works is a mix of Babo’s strategic talent and of Delano’s credulous willingness to trust that racist stereotypes are real. All the uncomfortable situations that Delano experienced on ship can be explained by Babo’s careful planning, which allowed his followers to be on alert at all times, ready to attack Delano if necessary. Delano’s racist beliefs, which kept him from understanding that angry slaves could be a potential threat, did not allow him to observe events from a neutral perspective.
Cereno notes that, throughout Captain Delano’s visit, Babo stayed by his side, playing the part of a faithful slave when in fact Babo, who understands Spanish, meant to observe Cereno and to keep him from misbehaving. Babo planned to attack Delano’s ship at night and thus become in charge of two ships.
Babo’s desire for territorial expansion mimics the Spanish empire’s tendency to invade foreign countries and take them as colonies. In this sense, Babo’s behavior is strikingly similar to the system he has rejected by overthrowing it.
Throughout his testimony, Cereno emphasizes his gratitude for Delano’s generosity. In his concluding remarks, he mentions that he does not believe the black slaves premeditated a rebellion, but that 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 plans. Cereno is too horrified by what he heard the slaves mention about Aranda’s corpse that he cannot describe how they cleaned the skeleton. He notes that Babo ordered an inscription to be placed beneath the figure-head and that, although Atufal and Babo were in charge, they never killed anyone themselves. He also notes that, throughout the rebellion, the black women sang melancholy songs, which, according to the slaves, made them particularly eager to take part in violent attacks.
Cereno’s mention of Delano’s generosity upholds the view that Delano has of his own self as a moral being, since it is indeed thanks to Delano’s actions that the truth about the San Dominick ultimately came to light. Cereno’s horror at the thought of Aranda’s skeleton suggests that the violence capable of cleaning it so thoroughly might involve the same process as cleaning an animal’s bones for food, and therefore some form of cannibalism (although this is never confirmed). The fact that sad songs drove the slaves’ actions is not surprising. It suggests that misery and despair are at the root of this revolt, not necessarily cruelty or greed—even if the slaves were undoubtedly cruel in the means through which they rebelled.
Cereno notes that certain crew members tried to alert Captain Delano to what was happening, but that the sailors’ fear and Delano’s innocence, which kept him from imagining such levels of cruelty, rendered these efforts futile. One of the men who tried to alert Delano was in fact killed as retribution. When a sailor once expressed hope of being saved by Delano, a slave hit him on the head. Cereno insists that his narrative should serve as sufficient proof that his crew and he could have behaved no differently than they were forced to. He adds that one of the sailors was killed as he tried to warn the American sailors not to board, but was taken to support the slaves’ rebellion and was thus mistakenly shot. Another man, who was killed in a similar way, carried a jewel that he hoped to bring to a shrine in Peru as thanks for having survived.
Cereno here solves some of the mysteries of the plot, such as the Spanish sailors who were killed early on and the shiny object Delano had seen a sailor carrying. He notes that Delano was correct in believing that sailors were trying to communicate with him, even if he never understood their true purpose. In fact, Delano’s complete lack of awareness about the complexity of the events taking place on the San Dominick probably played an important role in saving both Delano and Cereno’s life, since it kept Babo from becoming suspicious and launching an attack. In this sense, although naïveté kept Delano far from the truth, it also ensured his survival.
Finally, Cereno adds that some of the sailors killed some slaves after the San Dominick was recaptured but that, as soon as he discovered this, Captain Delano intervened to keep other men from doing the same. Cereno concludes his testimony by asserting that, at twenty-nine years old, he is now mentally and physically destroyed, and prefers to retire to a monastery rather than return to Spain.
In saving the slaves from being murdered, Delano asserts his authority as well as his moral uprightness, by insisting that good conduct and respect of the law should be applied to everyone, regardless of race. Although Delano is racist and ignorant, he does demonstrate that he values saving human lives.
The narrator notes that, if this testimony is a key to the mysteries at the heart of this narrative (“the lock,” as the narrator calls it), then the San Dominick should now appear open and bare. The narrator then proceeds to describe an earlier event: Delano and Cereno’s conversations during their trip to Lima. During this period, Cereno, whose health seems to have improved, says that it was excruciating for him to behave so rudely to Delano on the San Dominick. Cereno emphasizes that he had the courage to jump into Delano’s boat not because he wanted to save his own life, but because he could not stand the idea that Delano would innocently return to the Bachelor’s Delight, where he would later have been killed.
The narrator’s ambiguous comment about a lock and a key does not actually say that all the mysteries on the San Dominick have been explained—but, rather, encourages readers to reflect on what has been solved and what has not been given voice. Now that Cereno is finally able to express himself without having to obey Babo’s orders, he proves just as committed to good manners and social codes as Delano, since he considers politeness an important quality. Similarly to Delano, Cereno proves committed to helping others whom he knows to be more vulnerable, thus highlighting his own moral principles.
Delano then concludes that he owes Cereno his life, but Cereno, finally expressing his politeness and gratitude fully, replies that Delano was clearly protected by God throughout his time on the ship, since Delano intervened 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 played an important part in his survival, because they allowed him to ignore his suspicions and thus keep from entering into conflict with the black slaves.
By invoking Providence and God’s protection, Delano and Cereno both emphasize that Delano was extremely lucky to have survived the ordeals on the San Dominick. Although Delano is correct in noting that his natural optimism probably aided his survival, his focus on his own self, while understandable, keeps him from examining everything that has happened from a moral perspective. He focuses on mere survival over the search for truth.
Cereno then reflects on Delano’s experience. 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 his wish that, like Delano, everyone might one day become aware of what lies behind their illusions.
Less focused on mere survival than Delano, Cereno, who has been emotionally scarred by his experience, remains focused on the meaning of truth. Although he does not mention the way in which Delano’s racist beliefs have blinded him to Babo’s intelligence, he does suggest that everyone carries unconscious biases that might lead them to see innocent people as guilty and guilty people as innocent.
Surprised by Cereno’s gloomy tone, Delano enjoins him to forget the past and focus on the future, instead of reflecting on the moral nature of his experience. However, Cereno replies that only non-human things are capable of forgetting the past. In reply, Delano invites Cereno to notice the pleasant wind against their body, which can make them feel fully alive and healed. Cereno, however, replies that these winds merely bring him toward his death. Increasingly disturbed by his companion’s pessimistic attitude, Delano cries out that Cereno is saved and asks him what has disturbed him so much. Laconically, Cereno replies: “The negro.” Both of them remain silent for the rest of the day.
As usual, Delano prefers to ignore discomfort—whether moral or emotional—in order to focus on the pleasures of life and retain an optimistic outlook. By contrast, Cereno is not as attached to his own life, since he is now emotionally destroyed and has spent so many days knowing that his life was in constant peril. He is more inclined to reflect on the roots of what has happened, and concludes that the cause of all the violence that has emerged is race relations—the presence of black people in the lives of people like Cereno and Delano through slavery, and the violent energies that slavery can generate.
Babo—whose success in leading the revolt, the narrator emphasizes, depended on his intelligence, not his physical stature, since Delano overcame him so easily in the boat—remained silent as soon as he understood that there was no more he could do. The narrator notes that Babo must have concluded that his inability to act led him to abandon speech. Throughout the rest of the journey and the trial in Lima, Cereno refused to look at him.
The narrator’s comments are meant as a direct rebuttal of Delano’s racist views, as they emphasize Babo’s intelligence instead of typical stereotypes about black slaves. Babo’s silence is deliberate. It reflects the fact that the legal system will never give him voice and that the only way he can free himself is through actions (namely, violence).
Months later, Babo was put to death. Although his body was burned, his head was displayed on a pole, for all the white passersby to see. His face was turned toward the church where Aranda’s bones were deposed and, farther, toward the monastery where Cereno, three months later, died, thus “follow[ing] his leader.”
Babo’s death mirrors Aranda’s and thus suggests that both executions, however legal or illegal, are equally brutal. It remains ambiguous whether Cereno’s “leader” is Aranda or Babo, whose death he imitates or “follows.” Either way, even in death, Babo seems to be staring at the men he has subdued (Aranda and Cereno), perhaps signaling that, as an indignant, rebellious slave, he remains their true judge and master—suggesting that, through such strong relationships of violent domination, the master’s fate is physically and morally tied to his slaves.