In "Benito Cereno," the narrator is Amasa Delano, the captain of a Massachusetts whaling ship. When the story begins, Captain Delano and his ship, the Bachelor's Delight, are anchored off the island of Santa Maria. The Delight is a sealer, or whaling ship. While anchored, the crew spots another ship coming toward the island. The new ship seems to be floating rather listlessly, and her sails are torn. Delano decides to send a boat over to investigate.
He and his men reach the ship, which they see is called the San Dominick. The ship looks weather-beaten and decrepit. The figurehead of the ship is covered by canvas, but chalked underneath are the words (in Spanish), "follow your leader." Delano becomes fascinated by the mystery the ship presents. He boards the ship, and he is immediately accosted by sailors and black slaves, all begging for water and supplies. Delano orders his crew back to his own ship to get supplies, then tries to figure out what's happened to the San Dominick. He meets the ship's captain, Benito Cereno. Cereno seems a strange man, very nervous and strangely aloof; his behavior confuses Delano. Delano wonders if Cereno is an aristocrat who was given command of a ship, even though he doesn't seem to be a very good captain. But Delano is a patient and forgiving man, so he persuades himself that Cereno's behavior is a result of the trouble Cereno and his ship have suffered.
Cereno is constantly attended by Babo, his young black servant. Delano asks Cereno to explain what happened to the San Dominick. Briefly, Cereno falters, staring down at the deck. Annoyed, Delano goes to ask a sailor for the story, but Cereno abruptly speaks up. He tells Delano that the ship had left Buenos Aires six months earlier, bound for Lima. While rounding Cape Horn, they struck heavy winds, Cereno claims, and to lighten the ship they threw supplies overboard, including their containers of fresh water. While telling this story, Cereno has one of his many near-fainting spells, which makes Delano believe that Cereno is both sick and perhaps mentally troubled. Whenever he has these spells, Babo catches his master in his arms. Cereno continues the story, brokenly: the San Dominick rounded Cape Horn, but the ship was badly damaged, and many of the ship's crew became sick with scurvy and died, including every officer. The ship was then blown into the deep seas, where the wind suddenly died out, leaving the ship adrift and with little water. Since then, Cereno claims he had continually attempted to reach land, but had always been prevented from doing so by bad weather or bad seamanship by the remaining sailors. He adds that the slaves' owners were "quite right" in claiming that it was safe to allow the slaves to roam free on the deck, without chains. Cereno ends by praising his servant Babo, whom he credits with keeping the slaves pacified during all the problems. Delano also praises Babo, saying he envies that Cereno has such a faithful friend. Delano is particularly struck by the image of the pleasant, strong black slave upholding the weak, well-dressed white captain.
Delano tells Cereno he will give him some supplies, some sailors, and some rigging to help them reach the nearest port. This momentarily cheers up Cereno, but then Babo draws him aside, claiming the excitement is bad for his master, and when Cereno returns, he is morose again.
As Delano moves across the ship whenever Cereno is otherwise occupied, he often gets an intuitive feeling of suspicion, that something is wrong. He notices a small black boy hit a white cabin boy on the head with a knife, and lightly chides Cereno for allowing this to happen. The other captain acknowledges the incident, but makes no effort to punish the attacker.
Delano then inquires as to the owner of the slaves and discovers they belong to Alexander Aranda, a friend of Cereno's who died of the fever. Delano suspects that Aranda's body is still on board, judging from Cereno's reaction to discussing the man. But they are interrupted by a giant black slave named Atufal, who appears before Cereno in chains. Cereno asks Atufal if he is now willing to ask for pardon, but Atufal makes no answer, and Cereno dismisses him. Delano is impressed by Atufal's honorable refusal to beg for pardon, and he almost chides Cereno for keeping such a noble, well-behaved slave in chains, and Cereno can make no satisfactory explanation.
Cereno then rather rudely begins whispering with his servant. Delano starts to become suspicious, and believes he is the subject of their conversation. He even briefly flirts with the idea that Cereno is actually some low-born adventurer masquerading as a ship captain. But the good-natured Delano dismisses this idea, even as Cereno returns and asks him some rather suspicious questions, such as how many men his ship holds and whether they would be present on it that night.
Troubled by this, Delano tries to distract himself and sees an odd sight: a Spanish sailor, wearing the usual clothing of a sailor but with a shirt of the finest linen underneath. He sees another sailor brandishing something shiny before vanishing into the ship's hold. All these signs perplex him, and he turns them over in his mind. He is beginning to suspect that Benito Cereno may have plans to attack him and capture his own ship, the Bachelor's Delight.
Delano again dismisses his suspicions as silly, but witnesses another strange scene: two blacks push a sailor and then throw him to the ground. When Delano attempts to point this out to Cereno, the Spanish captain has another coughing fit, and his servant Babo must help him. The scene between master and servant causes Delano to forget the incident with the sailor. But soon the suspicions are back, as he thinks he sees the Spanish sailors giving him meaningful glances. He tries to question them, but they are constantly crowded out or harassed by the slaves. One sailor, however, seems to attempt to make contact with Delano, but flees before Delano can speak to him. Since the sailor seemed to be trying to speak to him without even his captain knowing, Delano becomes even more suspicious of Cereno.
Delano attempts to speak to another sailor, who is tying a knot, and the sailor hands the knot off to Delano, telling him (in broken English) to untie it quickly. Delano, dumbfounded, doesn't do so, and the knot is taken away from him by a slave. The situation is extremely strange, but Delano tries again to simply ignore it.
Delano questions Cereno further and, when he mentions Cape Horn, Cereno responds, "Who spoke of Cape Horn?" When reminded that he himself did, Cereno seems very upset. Babo then informs Cereno it is time for his daily shave. Delano finds this, like everything else, very odd, but goes along with it. During the shaving, he admires Babo's attitude and skill at shaving. He then brings up Cape Horn again, and before Cereno can answer, Babo accidentally cuts Cereno's skin. At the sight of the blood, Cereno looks terrified. Delano decides that a man so terrified by the sight of blood cannot possibly be plotting murder. The hollow tone of the Spanish captain's responses again makes Delano suspicious, and he wonders whether the master and servant aren't acting out some sort of pre-arranged play before him.
Delano then has lunch with Cereno, and finds to his annoyance that Cereno will not dismiss Babo from the room so they can talk in private.
The wind returns, and Delano begins to pilot the San Dominick toward his own ship. Soon the two ships are anchored near one another, and Delano calls for a boat to be lowered from his boat with supplies for the San Dominick. The supplies are delivered, and Delano prepares to take his leave of the ship. Just as he gets into his boat, Cereno leaps over the side of the San Dominick and falls at the captain's feet. Babo also leaps over, and with a dagger as well; Delano's men stop Babo from attacking, however. Delano realizes that Babo intended to stab Cereno, not himself; and as the boat escapes, the canvas falls away from the figurehead, revealing a human skeleton above the words "follow your leader." Delano then sends his men to take the ship, which they manage with some losses to their number.
The rest of the story consists mostly of Cereno's court deposition, revealing the truth about what happened on the ship.
The slaves revolted, led by Babo and the giant Atufal, killing much of the Spanish crew and taking control of the ship. They then forced Cereno to sail toward Senegal, where they were to be released. But before they could make such a trip, it would require supplies. Babo would not let Cereno come to a port that would put the ship in view of people, so he chose to sail to the island of Santa Maria. He told Babo he was planning on getting supplies, but in actuality he hoped a passing vessel would save them. In the meantime, the slaves killed their owner and master, Alexandro Aranda, and hung his skeleton on the figurehead to serve as a warning to the other sailors. When the Bachelor's Delight came near, Babo gave Cereno a story to tell, as well as the other sailors, then set up the masquerade of himself as a servant to Cereno, so as to keep an eye on him. Cereno and all the sailors were threatened with instant death if they give anything away. Cereno struggled between wanting to tell Delano the truth and the constant threat of Babo. Finally, he leapt overboard into Delano's boat, thus ending the charade.
At the end of the trial, Babo is executed and his head placed on a pole. Cereno falls into a deep misery, and a few months later he dies—he did indeed "follow his leader."
"Benito Cereno" is, like "Bartleby the Scrivener," one of Melville's most hotly debated short stories. But unlike "Bartleby," where interpretation of the story's essential meaning is the main area of interest, "Benito Cereno" owes much of its popularity among literary critics to its subject matter: slavery. "Benito" is Melville's only work of fiction that deals directly with slavery. Therefore, it is bothersome to Melville scholars that the story is so maddeningly enigmatic. As critic Warner Berthoff has pointed out, figuring out Melville's attitude is nearly impossible—one could fairly argue that his attitude is forgiving, patronizing, or contemptuous of blacks and/or slavery. Like much of Melville's work, the popular interpretations of "Benito" have changed depending on the political and academic atmosphere of each critic.
The historical incident that "Benito Cereno" is based on is very similar to the one that Steven Spielberg's film Amistad was based upon. The film's plot is entirely sympathetic to the slaves. Their masters are shown to be cruel monsters who deserved their deaths, and the slaves are portrayed as righteous freedom fighters who want nothing more than to return home. Imagine if Spielberg had tried to make a film where the black slaves are the bad guys and the slavers, heroically defending themselves with pistols and rifles against the swords and hatchets of the slaves, are the good guys. In the 1990s, when Amistad was made, such a movie would have drawn massive protests—Spielberg would have been run out of the country. But "Benito Cereno," published in 1855 (during a time of great political turmoil over the issue of slavery, six years before the Civil War), provides that very scenario: the slaves, who are portrayed as both brutal and cunning, revolt against their masters and are thwarted by the efforts of well-armed white men. However, few critics believe that "Benito Cereno" is a pro-slavery story. Few men in America had had more contact with indigenous foreigners, living in their native homes of Africa or the Polynesian Islands, than Melville. Melville's brutally cunning slaves may have been somewhat inspired by his experiences living amongst cannibals, but Melville was also a product of New England, of Massachusetts and of the Transcendentalist movement—he was in the center of abolitionist activity, and he was never known to trouble his literary friends by expressing pro-slavery attitudes. It seems highly unlikely that in "Benito Cereno" Melville was deliberately trying to portray blacks as being rightly condemned to slavery; rather, it is an intriguing exploration of the relationship between blacks and whites. The story is surprisingly modern in its contemplation of racism, more than a hundred years before the civil rights movement.
The protagonist of "Benito Cereno" is not really Captain Delano—his character does not really change in the course of the story, other than his awakening to the true relationship of Cereno and the slaves. Rather, the protagonist is Cereno himself, who falls under "the shadow of the Negro" in the course of the tale, eventually leading to his death. But upon a first reading, until the very end, it seems almost certain that the story is going to be Delano's, and Cereno will be revealed to be some sort of villain. "Benito" is a story that almost demands to be read twice, after the "surprise ending" has been revealed. By re-reading the story, the reader can properly understand Cereno's behavior in any given situation. The reader understands why Cereno's eyes go glassy for a moment when Delano asks him what has happened to his ship; Cereno is trying to remember the story Babo told him. When Babo shows Cereno the bloody razor, the reader understands his terror—Babo is threatening him.
Of course, none of this is revealed until the very end of Delano's involvement with Cereno. The process of reaching this understanding is slow, and sometimes painfully slow, for the reader.
To anyone who knows the secret of "Benito Cereno"—and even to those that don't—the unfolding of its mystery may seem painfully slow. The summary above cannot do justice to Melville's prose, which is paced rather slow and methodically, much like Captain Delano's mind. The strange incidents begin to pile up: the young back slave hitting the white boy without any reprimand from Cereno, the Spanish sailors seeming to motion to him, the whispering between Cereno and Babo, and the two blacks knocking down the sailor. Yet each time, Delano's trusting nature causes him to dismiss his suspicions.
It is difficult to determine whether Delano is too trusting, or not trusting enough. If Delano were more willing to let his suspicions get the best of him, or if he were a more suspicious person in general, he might have figured out what was going on before the end of the story. But as the reader later finds out, had Delano found out the truth about the slaves and tried to act, he almost certainly would have been caught by Babo and killed on the spot. By being so trusting, Delano falls for the hastily-arranged scam that Babo concocts, and this allows Cereno to survive until he can leap down into Delano's boat.
But, as mentioned earlier, Melville unfolds his plot very slowly. Some readers may become frustrated with Delano as he repeatedly witnesses strange events, then dismisses them time and again. Literary critic Warner Berthoff has likened "Benito Cereno" to the telling of a riddle: it must be told once, so the listener has a chance to figure it out; and once figured out, the listener goes over the riddle again, to make sure his or her answer fits all the parts of the riddle. The strange incidents that Delano witnesses are the clues to the riddle, the answer is so surprising that Delano never really figures it out. To a nineteenth-century man, even one from a liberal state like Massachusetts, the idea of a group of slaves revolting, then coming up with such a complicated ruse to fool a ship's captain, would have been a very far-fetched idea indeed. Melville's readers would have been just as mystified by the strange events as Delano.
It is notable that Delano does little to intervene with the strange things he encounters. He accepts Cereno's odd, often rude manners with little reproach, if any. Whenever a black strikes a white man, he points it out to Cereno, but he doesn't do anything about it himself. Delano and the Lawyer of "Bartleby the Scrivener" are actually similar characters. They are both relatively intelligent, established, well-balanced men who are exposed to a number of very odd events and behaviors. They remain contemplative where most men would immediately question these events vigorously, or take immediate action. Few lawyers would retain a copyist that refused to examine his copies, and few captains would ever allow a black slave to strike a white man without punishment, no matter what the ship's actual captain did. But despite their contemplation, both Delano and the Lawyer are thwarted in their attempts to discover the truth. Delano only finds it when Cereno leaps into his boat and reveals that the blacks are actually in control of the ship; the Lawyer never really finds out the truth about Bartleby. By remaining so passive in their observations, both Delano and the Lawyer are unable to reach the knowledge they are so earnestly searching for.
The riddle is finally revealed: the slaves were in control all the time. Everything Delano witnessed makes sense, upon reflection. Most subtle was Cereno's method of hiding his nervousness: he made himself appear to be mentally ill or sick, and prone to faint, and he used those fainting spells to distract Delano whenever he became worried that Delano was in danger of discovering the truth. If Delano found out that the slaves were running things, Babo would have them both killed. While Delano was worried that Cereno was plotting to kill him, Cereno was in fact preserving the other captain's life through his strange behavior. It is this concern for the safety of Delano and his crew that finally sends Cereno over the edge and into Delano's boat. He knows that Babo is planning to capture Delano's ship while his men are on shore, and this drives him to escape despite Babo's threat.
The deposition itself is interesting primarily for the way it explains all the strange things Delano witnessed while on board. But in this last section of "Benito Cereno," the reader is forced to examine the story's treatment of blacks, and whether their revolt was justified. Certainly the deposition paints them in the worst light: the slaves murder dozens of men in their sleep, and Babo is a cold-blooded murderer who casually orders the death of Alexander Aranda. A slave revolt, of course, is the worst fear of all slave owners and traders. This one is particularly brutal and effective, thanks to their leader Babo.
Babo is a complex character. He is arguably more intelligent than either Cereno or Delano, because he has almost total control over Cereno and successfully fools Delano. It is sheer luck that Cereno survives his leap into the boat and Babo fails to kill him. Babo's performance as Cereno's servant is so convincing that Delano admires him on several occasions for his loyalty to his master, and even offers, half-jokingly, to buy him. When the story is re-read, there is a blatant irony in the relationship between Babo and Cereno. Cereno is the real servant, of course, and every time he reels and falls into Babo's embrace, it could be the embrace of death. Babo hovers over Cereno like Death himself, threatening to take his life should he make one wrong move. The shaving scene, where Babo accidentally nicks Cereno's throat, takes on a particularly sinister character. But it is unclear what Melville is trying to say by making Babo so intelligent. Is Babo intelligent, or is he just very cunning? Since Babo can speak and write Spanish, it is likely that he is quite intelligent. By having him outwit two white commanders, Melville is crediting Babo with considerable intelligence. But whether this is intended as proof that blacks are as smart as whites, or simply to make Babo into a formidable and frightening villain, is unclear. Much of Melville's fiction is written without such absolutes; the gray areas are intentional.
Probably the most significant fact at the end of the story is Cereno's inability to recover. Delano asks him what has cast such a "shadow" upon him, and Cereno responds "the Negro." This could mean many things. It could mean that Cereno's mind has been ruined by the terrible ordeal he has gone through. More symbolically, it could mean that Cereno realizes he is less intelligent than a black slave, so a "shadow" is now cast over his own skin, making him the "black."
This last interpretation may be supported by the last few lines of the story. Delano tells us that a few months after Babo was executed for his crimes, Cereno died and was buried in the same cemetery as Alexander Aranda, and therefore he truly "followed his leader." But this statement comes right after Delano describes the death of Babo, while Aranda is only mentioned very briefly in passing. So the reader can never be sure just who Cereno's "leader" really was—his friend Aranda, or Babo the black slave?