Study Guide

Benito Cereno Detailed Summary

By Herman Melville

Detailed Summary

  • Spotlight on Amasa Delano, captain of every single guy's favorite boat: The Bachelor's Delight.
  • Captain Delano is originally from Massachusetts, but he's chilling in the harbor of St. Maria with a whole boatload of valuable loot.
  • While everyone's just hanging in the harbor, a pretty beat-up ship sails into view. Delano figures it's in distress based on its ratty appearance.
  • The figurehead of the ship is all wrapped up in canvas. Someone's written "Follow your leader" in chalk on the canvas, because it isn't creepy enough to be sailing a ghost ship—you need cryptic chalk slogan.
  • Delano can barely make out the ship's name: the San Dominick. Like we said, this ship has been through the ringer and it's filthy.
  • Being a stand-up guy, Delano takes a small boat out with a few of his crewmen to see what's going on.
  • Delano has barely set foot onboard the San Dominick when a bunch of slaves and Spanish sailors mob him for food. Seems like they're starving and miserable.
  • He meets Benito Cereno, the young Spanish captain of the creepy ship. Cereno seems so nervous, he's about to do the Jitterbug right on the ship's deck
  • Luckily, Cereno has a faithful slave named Babo who basically supports his sickly and anxious master. And when we say "supports," we mean he literally holds him up. Cereno is about as stable as a house of cards.
  • Cereno tells Delano a harrowing tale about what the San Dominick's been through. Pretty much like Delano gathered the ship was a slaver bound for Lima with (yuck) human cargo.
  • That is, until the ship fell on hard times. Around Cape Horn, the San Dominick got hit pretty hard with a storm.
  • At that point, Cereno ordered his crew to shove as much stuff overboard as possible. Some genius decided to throw away all the water.
  • And it turns out, that wasn't the greatest idea. Not only was there "water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink," but scurvy broke out on board. Take your Vitamin C, ladies and gents!
  • Around that time, Cereno let all the slaves free to wander above deck. Everyone was miserable, anyway, he figured.
  • Actually, Cereno mentions how thankful he was for the slaves who helped him out.
  • He's especially grateful for Babo, who is apparently the greatest thing since sliced bread.
  • Delano thinks this is all hunky-dory, but he can't help thinking Cereno is a fraud. He doesn't know why, but the guy gives him the heebie-jeebies.
  • Delano spots something weird going on: a black guy strikes a white cabin boy over a petty argument.
  • Cereno doesn't seem to give a hoot. That's what really weirds Delano out.
  • Now, Delano's poking around. He asks Cereno about the original owner of all of the slaves.
  • Turns out that was one Alexandro Aranda, who died of a fever some ways back.
  • Cereno must really miss the guy, 'cause he can't help shaking while talking about him.
  • Delano wants to know if Aranda's body is still on board. That's a weird question, right?
  • Delano's rude question is interrupted by the appearance of Atufal, a slave wearing an iron collar and chains.
  • Benito Cereno looks crazy vengeful when Atufal appears, but he just asks him if he'll finally ask his pardon.
  • Atufal doesn't even dignify Cereno with an answer. This is seriously insubordinate behavior on a gross slave ship.
  • According to Cereno, the chains stay on until Atufal apologizes. Sounds like this guy holds a grudge.
  • Meanwhile, Cereno starts asking Delano how many men are aboard the Bachelor's Delight and how well armed they are. Huh. Everyone is asking weird questions on this boat.
  • Delano is starting to give Cereno some major side-eye when he catches a glimpse of a Spanish sailor wearing a fine linen shirt under some nasty old clothing. Weird.
  • Trying to shake the feeling that something's super-strange, Delano fakes a jolly tone and tells Cereno that he must really have faith in Babo.
  • Cereno says "Yep." But he says it in a cold way. What is with this guy?
  • Delano starts playing detective. He sees a glint of something shiny under the clothes of a Spanish sailor. Obviously, he immediately jumps to the worst conclusions.
  • While still pondering the strange shiny thing, he spots two slaves dashing a Spaniard to the deck.
  • Delano demands Cereno do something about it, but Cereno conveniently has a major coughing attack.
  • Babo to save the day! He supports his master and gets an admiring compliment from Delano.
  • In fact, Delano wants to buy Babo for himself.
  • "Master wouldn't part with Babo for a thousand doubloons," Babo says. He's calling Delano out!
  • Cereno is too busy coughing to answer.
  • Delano keeps nosing around the ship, trying to find answers. He stumbles across an old Spanish sailor trying to tie a big knot. You know, as one does on ships.
  • Delano is weirdly curious about this knot. He asks the old man what he's doing.
  • This is when things get a little eerie: the old man first says he's tying a knot "for someone else to undo," then he throws the knot at Delano and begs him to untie it, quick.
  • Delano turns around and sees Atufal there, just staring him down.
  • The knot episode throws Delano into a whole frenzy of worry. He's convinced Cereno is going to murder him on the ghost ship.
  • Delano gets control over himself, even though he's still convinced Cereno's got it in for him.
  • The supplies Delano sent over for from the Bachelor's Delight finally arrive. Whoopee!
  • After the supply boat leaves, Delano returns to his favorite hobby: asking Cereno awkward questions.
  • Specifically, he wants to know more about when the San Dominick threw out supplies around Cape Horn.
  • Cape Horn? What Cape Horn? Cereno has no idea what Delano is talking about.
  • Delano is totally fed up. "You just told me about Cape Horn!" he says.
  • Bur Babo intercedes. It's time for his master's haircut.
  • While Cereno is getting lathered up, Delano just hangs out and watches. This is what reality shows are made for, folks.
  • Oh yeah, and Delano takes the opportunity to ask more questions. Specifically, there are a few holes in the story about the huge storm.
  • Before Cereno can answer, Babo's blade slips. It's a pretty bad cut.
  • Babo is distraught. Apparently, this kind of thing really doesn't happen often.
  • Babo finishes shaving Cereno without incident, although the Spaniard is shaking like a leaf.
  • Francesco, another slave, serves Cereno and Delano lunch. Delano can't help but notice that he looks like a European.
  • Here comes Detective Delano again. This time, he wants to get Cereno alone to really ask him his opinion about a few choice subjects.
  • Cereno absolutely refuses. He can't be without his precious Babo, even for a second.
  • There's Atufal again, lurking in the background. Seriously, he's everywhere.
  • Delano can't be troubled to figure it out. Instead, he concentrates all his energies into steering the San Dominick into the harbor.
  • What do you know; they've pulled up right by the Bachelor's Delight!
  • Delano gets ready to bail from the San Dominick and return to his ship, leaving his new creepy buddies behind.
  • He's about to hop into a tiny boat to go back to the Bachelor's Delight when Cereno grabs his hand.
  • Like, he will not let his hand go. It's like one of those awkward handshakes that lasts way too long.
  • When Cereno finally lets go, he blesses Delano and wishes him well. This is getting odder and odder.
  • As Delano's little boat descends to the ocean, Cereno throws himself in. What can we say: the guy has attachment issues.
  • In a second, Babo throws himself in, too. Cereno can't go anywhere without him.
  • But wait, what's this? Babo is trying to stab Delano!
  • But wait, it's even weirder—Babo is actually trying to stab Cereno, his beloved master.
  • Delano knocks him down and orders the guns on his own ship brought out. Like a boss.
  • The canvas from the figurehead is cut away, revealing a human skeleton under the "Follow Your Leader" chalk sign. It's the skeleton of Aranda, the slave-owner who was supposed to have died of a fever.
  • Delano realizes that the slaves aboard the San Dominick are actually in control, just in time for an epic battle between the ships.
  • It's finally battle time. Delano tries to get in on the action, but Cereno begs him to hold back.
  • The Bachelor's Delight captures the San Dominick back, killing a good number of the former slaves in the process. The others are imprisoned for the trial.
  • Ready for a major change-up, Shmoopers? The rest of the book takes place in trial time.
  • From a series of court documents, we figure out that Babo was the ringleader of a slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick, with Atufal as his right-hand man.
  • The slaves killed Aranda and a bunch of the other Spaniards, then steered the ship towards Senegal and freedom.
  • Unfortunately, they ran into the Bachelor's Delight first.
  • Babo told all the surviving Spaniards to keep their lips zipped if they wanted to live.
  • And the rest is history.
  • Finally, Cereno can have a straight conversation with Delano. Our Spanish friend is still pretty shaky and gloomy, despite having been rescued.
  • This mostly has to do with the violent death of Babo.
  • After the trial, Babo was dragged by the tail of a mule and then burnt at a stake.
  • Cereno's melancholy persists until he dies. As ol' Melville writes, he finally followed his leader—to the grave.

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