The year is 1799, and Captain Amasa Delano, a simple and optimistic seal trader from Massachusetts, spots a strange Spanish ship while harbored at St. Maria Island off the coast of Chile. The ship shows no flag and steers erratically; Delano determines to investigate. Bringing gift baskets of fish, Delano and several of his men approach the mysterious vessel in their whaleboat. As they near the ship, Delano notes many strange features: the ship appears "battered and moldy," the ropes are frayed, the sails are ragged, and large rifts of barnacles have formed along the hull. Canvas drapes the front of the ship, where the figurehead is usually mounted, though written underneath the canvas is legible, "Seguid vuestro jefe," which translates, "Follow your leader." The ship's name is also legible: it is the San Dominick. Strangest of all, however, is the fact that the ship seems manned entirely by African slaves.
Delano boards the San Dominick to see a throng of blacks and whites, all exhibiting signs of suffering. He makes out a loose semblance of order: "four elderly grizzled negroes," one stationed above each corner of the deck, seem to be the authority on board; they sit in their corners, each making caulk out of old rope and tar. Six other black men, Ashanti warriors by birth, sit along the verge leading to the poop and polish rusty hatchets.
Captain Delano at last finds the captain of the San Dominick amidst the crowd: a young, dreary, reserved man named Benito Cereno. Always at his side is his black servant, Babo. Captain Delano, given to patronizingly admiring African servants, looks with pleasure and approval upon Babo's attentiveness to his master. After distributing his baskets of fish, Delano orders the men in his whaleboat to return to the Bachelor's Delight, Delano's ship, and fetch water and provisions for Cereno and his crew. He then asks the reserved Cereno to tell the story of his obvious sufferings, and for that purpose they stand together apart from the throng, with only Babo near.
Cereno reports that the San Dominick set out one hundred and ninety days before from Buenos Aires for Lima filled with cargo, fifty Spanish sailors and three hundred black slaves. As they were rounding Cape Horn, Cereno says that they were caught in violent storms that killed many of his sailors. After many days of battling the storms, the scurvy broke out on his ship, killing many more. On top of this, they found themselves suddenly in doldrums. A combination of fever, scurvy and starvation led Cereno to lose every remaining officer on board. In an attempt to procure water, Cereno says that he has been trying to make landfall in Chile, but the sorry state of his ship and crew has made it impossible.
Coughing fits regularly interrupt Cereno's tale; to Delano, the Spanish captain seems ill both in body and spirit. However, Cereno manages to single out the black men and women aboard his ship as deserving of special praise for their conduct during the hardships of the last months. Babo smiles devotedly at his master's thanks, and Delano, who appreciates such shows of servility, praises Babo as well.
Although Delano is the least judgmental of men, he becomes somewhat uneasy during the course of Cereno's tale. He can't help blaming a good part of the San Dominick's troubles on Cereno's lax, incompetent leadership, however poor their fortune had been. Also, there is a threatening aspect to the goings-on aboard the ship: on his way to talk with Cereno, Delano walks through the gathering of Ashanti hatchet-sharpeners. Although he is not injured, he experiences a grim foreboding as he passes. Even more strangely, Delano witnesses a black boy striking a white companion, an offence that Delano considers serious indeed. Cereno, in his usual, sickly way, dismisses the offence as mere fun between children. Delano is not so sure; however, ever the optimist, he dismisses these apprehensions.
Delano, restarting the conversation, asks Cereno whose slaves he is carrying. Cereno replies that the slaves belonged to his best friend, Don Alexandro Aranda, who perished in the course of the ship's disasters. Seeing Cereno upset at the thought of his lost friend, Delano suggests that if Aranda's body had been kept on the ship for proper burial, Cereno wouldn't feel so bad. At the mention of Aranda's body, however, Cereno becomes even more distraught, much to Delano's confusion.
Melville's tale opens with grays: "everything gray"; "the sea...was sleeked at the surface like waved lead"; "the sky seemed a gray surtout." Even the strange vessel that Delano spots in the distance "show[s] no colors." This emphasis on grays is ironic given that the major conflict of "Benito Cereno" will be between black and white. Gray is the color in which black and white both disappear, in which the two opposite colors are seen as an equal wash; Melville's opening provides more than a hint of the moral muddle to come. As Frederick Busch writes, "Benito Cereno" is a tale in which "the reader is alerted that he will have to read this world and interpret the grays."
Indeed, the reader plays a very active part in "Benito Cereno." Like the good-natured, naive Captain Delano, the reader must interpret the signs Melville presents. The signs and symbols are everywhere-probably more numerous than any analysis can cover in full. But the point isn't merely to cover them all, or to figure them all out. The point is for the reader to engage, as Delano and Cereno do, in the murky act of truth-seeking. The signs and symbols that appear throughout "Benito Cereno" don't contain nuggets of truth; rather, they are opaque, ironic gestures at truth. The truth of "Benito Cereno" is the evasiveness of truth.
This state of affairs is further complicated by the fact that for at least the first two-thirds of "Benito Cereno," everything in the narrative is interpreted through the filter of Captain Amasa Delano, and everything Delano believes is misleading. Delano is a stereotype that Melville plucks out of American hagiography: he is the "Yankee skipper," an extremely trusting, open, simple man. Although the tale is set in 1799 (the same year, not coincidentally, as a famous slave rebellion on the island of San Domingo), Delano represents many of the foibles and prejudices of Melville's own age. He is the quintessential Northerner in the buildup to the Civil War: genially racist, believing the best in what he considers to be the inferior, child-like race of savages who throng around Benito Cereno, and doggedly stupid. Hopefully, the reader understands far before he does the truth on board the San Dominick: that the slaves have taken over, and that the performance of servility that Babo and the other rebels have mastered is just that-a performance.
As Delano approaches the San Dominick, symbols abound, although the Captain acknowledges none of them. A "white noddy"-an albatross, which is a nautical symbol of the supernatural (see "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner")-is perched in the ship's riggings. From Delano's perspective, the black men and women aboard seem like "Black Friars": Dominican monks, who wore black robes. Indeed, Dominican imagery overruns the first passages of the tale-the ship's name, San Dominick, the appearance of the slaves, even the appearance of the ship, which reminds Delano of an old, ruined castle. This is gothic imagery, combining the mysteries of Catholicism with ruins and spectral foreboding. Thus Melville suggests that Delano will interpret the San Dominick through the lens of high melodrama; this is precisely what Babo and the other slaves want him to do.
Two especially powerful images, which Delano passes over in his general mood of mystery but which an astute reader will read into deeply, are the San Dominick's figurehead and stern-piece, situated on either end of the ship. Only the stern-piece is visible as the tale opens; the figurehead is covered by canvas "either to protect it while undergoing a re-furbishing, or else decently to hide its decay." The stern-piece depicts "groups of mythological or symbolical device; uppermost and central of which was a dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked." This image tells the whole story, though Delano cannot see it. Two masked figures, one holding the other down. Of course, it is ambiguous who is holding whom down. One could imagine any of the major players in "Benito Cereno" behind either of those masks. The most obvious solution, though, is Babo as the dark satyr, with Cereno writhing beneath him.
And indeed, when we see them, both of these players are exquisitely masked. Babo plays the part of an officious servant splendidly, manipulating Delano's racist opinion of African servants. Delano thinks of Africans as childish, bright-color-loving, happy savages who love nothing more than to serve white people; Babo, with his jolly raiment and his constant bowing and smiling, shows Delano what Delano wants to see, thus blinding him to the truth. Cereno, too, puts on a performance, though a coerced one; at Babo's hidden knifepoint, Cereno plays the part of a leader. He affects authority, costumed "with a certain precision in his attire," when in fact he has neither precision nor power.
The rest of the San Dominick's company is equally a part of the play. The four elderly, grizzled oakum pickers, who watch over the milling throng on the deck, are like prompters in their prompt-boxes, occasionally reminding the rest of the slaves of their lines, so to speak. Whenever the honest face of rebellion seems ready to erupt (and even dull Delano, every once in a while, feels dreadful and uneasy) the oakum pickers quell it, and re-establish the masquerade. The six Ashanti conjurers sharpen and polish hatchets as though Cereno has assigned them busy-work while Delano wanders the deck in an optimistic stupor. The sound of their work is an ironic chorus, commenting on Delano's inability to interpret the tableaux before him; at any moment, the Ashanti might rise from where they sit and murder their American audience with the hatchets they've been sharpening all along. And though from time to time, again and again, a shadow of the truth seems to occur to Delano, he always misinterprets it, either briefly mistrusting Cereno (it is totally beyond Delano's imaginative powers to consider that the slaves are in charge of the ship) or dismissing his apprehensions altogether.