Study Guide

Benito Cereno Summary

By Herman Melville

Benito Cereno Summary

Captain Amasa Delano is a friendly bloke and sea captain from Massachusetts who has the good luck of captaining a large boat with lots of valuable stuff on board. He's holed up in the harbor of St. Maria, just chilling with his crew, when along comes a ship that's clearly been through the ringer. We're talking torn sails, disrepair, Ghost Ship status. Captain Delano is more than a little sketched out, so he decides to sail over with a few of his best dudes to see what's going on.

Things get even weirder when Delano gets on board. A bunch of people, both sailors and African slaves, basically waylay him to tell him their tale of suffering. Serious suffering: we're talking about scurvy, fever, storm and shipwreck. Everyone's starving, but they take Delano to their leader, Benito Cereno.

Benito is a posh Spaniard who's seen better days. He seems to be wasting away, but his faithful slave Babo is backing him up every step of the way. Delano can't seem to shake the thought that Benito is an impostor, though he's not sure who or what he's impersonating.

Anyway, Benito gives Delano the lowdown on the ship. Apparently, it was a slave ship that was bound for Lima before the crew fell on hard times. The San Dominick hit some major storms, making it necessary for the crew to throw out water and crucial provisions. Since everyone was miserable anyway, Benito let the slaves loose from their chains and everyone pitched in to get them home.

Delano immediately sends over to his ship for some extra provisions, because he's a nice guy like that. Benito seems really happy about that, but Babo tells him to calm down—it's dangerous for his master to get so excited. Meanwhile, Delano can't help but notice some odd stuff going on around the ship. One of the slaves hits a Spaniard cabin boy with a knife, and Benito basically winks and looks away. Delano starts poking around and finds out that the slaves originally belonged to Alexandro Aranda, a buddy of Benito's who kicked the bucket some ways back. It seems he died of a sudden fever. Delano wants to know if Aranda's body is still on board, which seems like a pretty rude question to ask.

A slave named Atufal interrupts their conversation, prompting Cereno to ask if he's ready to ask for pardon. Although Atufal's weighted down with chains, he doesn't make an answer. Delano, who has lots of ideas about the idea of the noble slave, is impressed by Atufal's resolve.

Meanwhile, Benito starts asking some questions. For instance—how many men are on board Delano's boat? Are they well armed? Benito is showing himself to be an oddly nosey parker.

More strange stuff is afoot: a sailor with an indiscernible shiny object walks by. Two of the slaves push a sailor to the ground and Benito turns a blind eye again (he's too busy coughing all over his best buddy, Babo, who must be getting sick of all the germs). An older sailor guy tying knots tries to convey a secret message to Delano, but our favorite captain doesn't quite get it. A slave whisks the sailor (and the knot) away before Delano can figure out what's going on.

Delano starts to push Benito for more details about what's going on, but Benito says some weird stuff about Cape Horn. Uh, talk about a non sequitur? Rather abruptly, Babo brings up the fact that it's time for Benito's daily shave. While Benito's getting a shave and a haircut (two bits!) Delano subtly tries to bring up Cape Horn again. What's up with that, anyway? Before Benito can answer, Babo nicks him with the razor. Delano finds this all extremely suspicious, but he's still kind of clueless. Time for lunch! Although Benito's having trouble relaxing, he has an even tougher time when Delano tries to get him alone. He just seems to want to have Babo with him at all times.

Finally, Delano decides to bail from the San Dominick. He prepares to have a small boat lowered into the water to make the journey back to his own ship, but something rather unexpected happens: Benito basically throws himself in the small boat as Delano takes his leave. Whoa, there! Babo also makes the jump, following his master.

In an instant, Babo tries to stab Delano. After Delano's men prevent the sudden attack, Delano has an "a-ha" moment—Babo's not trying to stab Delano. He's trying to stab Benito. As the little boat gets further away from the San Dominick, a big old piece of canvas falls off from the figurehead. A skeleton is hanging there, along with the cryptic words "Follow your leader."

The rest of the story is told in court documents. It turns out that the San Dominick underwent a slave revolt, led by Babo and Atufal. So long, Alexandro Aranda! As you might have figured out, Aranda was killed during the rebellion and hung on the figurehead as a kind of warning. Benito was supposed to steer the ship towards Senegal, where the slaves were supposed to go free, but pesky Delano happened to stumble across them before that could happen. Babo told Benito to play that everything was normal when Delano came on board, but that obviously ended disastrously.

Flashing back to present time it's trial time for Babo and the rest of the former slaves. Babo is condemned to die and his head is mounted on a pole. Benito kicks the bucket only a little while later of natural causes, seemingly heartbroken over the loss of Babo.

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