Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno Summary and Analysis of Section 3


After seeing that the breeze will indeed hold, Delano sets about ordering the crew to steer the San Dominick toward the Bachelor's Delight. He finds Babo suddenly at his elbow, repeating his orders. Delano checks the helm and returns to Cereno to tell him that they will soon arrive at the Bachelor's Delight. Babo is again at his side like glue, and Cereno is as sensitive and ginger to his questions as a man in danger of being flayed alive. Delano asks Cereno if he will join Delano for a drink on the Bachelor's Delight once the two ships meet. Cereno despairingly tells Delano that he will not. The American takes this refusal of common courtesy to be the last straw: he has been repeatedly insulted during his visit on the San Dominick, and resolves to wait out his stay away from the moody Spaniard for the remainder of the journey.

The San Dominick pulls alongside the Bachelor's Delight, and as Delano prepares to walk the gangplank from the Spanish ship to his own, Cereno appears to wish him well. This show of affection moves Delano, who decides that Cereno's insults weren't intentional after all. Cereno grasps Delano's hand so firmly in a farewell gesture that Delano cannot undo the clasp; he finally wrenches his hand from the Spaniard's and, bidding him adieu and good luck, walks the gangplank over to the Bachelor's Delight.

At that moment, Cereno leaps from the side of the San Dominick into the Bachelor's Delight, beside Delano. Three white sailors, following their captain's example, also abandon the San Dominick and begin swimming toward the American ship. Suspecting treachery on Cereno's part, Delano thrusts the Spaniard aside just in time to see Babo leap onto the Bachelor's Delight, wielding a dagger. Delano assumes that Babo has leapt to avenge the apparent kidnapping of his master; as he protects himself from Babo's dagger, though, it becomes clear that Babo doesn't want to kill him: Babo wants to kill Cereno.

At this, Delano's mind becomes clear; all the oddness of his visit makes sense. The slaves mutinied, took control of the San Dominick, and forced Cereno to obey them. The Ashanti axe-polishers prepare for combat and the cable from the cut gangplank whips away the canvas that covers the beak of the San Dominick, revealing a skeleton for the ship's figurehead. Cereno screams that the skeleton is his murdered friend, Aranda.

After Babo is bound and garrisoned, Cereno and Delano confer over their next line of attack. They retrieve the three Spaniards who abandoned ship with their captain. Cereno tells Delano that the slaves don't have access to any firearms, and Delano decides to send a whaleboat and yawl after the San Dominick in an attempt to retake the ship, bounty and all, and re-enslave the Africans on board. Cereno talks Delano out of going himself; in his stead he sends his first mate, a resolute man rumored to have been a pirate.

The Americans quickly catch up to the San Dominick and, keeping out of range of the Ashanti's thrown hatchets, begin killing slaves with their guns. They kill Atufal and the Spaniard at the San Dominick's helm; however, they are sparing in their gunshot as it is their aim to retake the slaves, not to kill or maim them. The Americans and the Africans clash as the sailors try to board the San Dominick. The slaves almost beat their sally back, but with a last burst the Americans push the exhausted defenders back and board the San Dominick.

The black men and women who survive this attack are re-enslaved, and a vice-regal court is called to investigate the mutiny aboard the San Dominick. Benito Cereno's testimony, though incredible, is admitted as the main line of evidence in the case.


Captain Delano is, in some ways, the opposite of Oedipus, the hero of Greek mythology, although both Delano and Oedipus are the sources of their own undoing-or, in Delano's case, near-undoing. Whereas Oedipus, the King of Thebes, spends the greater part of Sophocles' play trying to discover the source of Thebes' curse, only to discover his own responsibility, Delano happily steers the San Dominick back to his own ship, never for more than a moment suspecting that foul play is afoot, and never even approaching the truth-that Babo is masterminding a great illusion for his behalf, and that the diminutive slave now plans to capture the Bachelor's Delight as well. Whereas Oedipus' blindness is a function of his introspection and his brilliance as a puzzle-solver, Delano's is a simple matter of his complete density when it comes to symbol reading. And Oedipus, unlike Delano, learns horror from his error. Delano, when the truth of the mutiny is revealed, applies his same well-worn stupidity to capturing the San Dominick and the human cargo on board. Delano does not know that he is a hypocrite, but he very clearly is.

Indeed, in the second half of "Benito Cereno," the canvas falls away in many respects, revealing horrible sights aplenty. Nearly at the moment of Delano's understanding, the gangplank whips away the canvas covering the figurehead of the San Dominick, revealing the skeletal remains of Don Aranda. This can be taken to show the brutal reality beneath the African slaves' facade: they have murdered their master, even (it is later suggested) eaten his flesh. The noble savages Delano admired so profusely are more savage than noble, and the officious Babo is revealed as a unflinching mastermind, his brain "a hive of subtlety" beneath his mincing mask.

Yet the events that follow clearly belie a simple good versus evil reading of "Benito Cereno." Once Babo's duplicity is revealed, Delano's unthinking duplicity follows suit. The outspoken admirer of Africans and black companions turns out to be a brutal, vicious man. His sympathy shifts violently away from the blacks and toward their abused ex-master, Cereno. Melville writes, soon after the plot comes to light, "Delano clutched the half-reclined Don Benito...while his right foot, on the other side, ground the prostrate negro." Who, now, is the masked satyr? As Glenn Altschuler asks in writing about "Benito Cereno," Whose foot is on whose throat? Delano's sunny Massachusetts air masks a vicious man, just as surely as Babo's solicitous show masks a rebel.

Delano's men's capture of the San Dominick drives this point home. Delano's chief mate, rumored to be a former pirate, leads the expedition. Don Cereno informs the sailors that there is a great deal of wealth on the Spanish ship, which would be partly theirs if it were captured; moreover, the sailors realize almost without saying it that their object is not simply to bring the rebellious slaves to justice, but to re-enslave the human cargo. Those Spanish sailors who attempt to exact revenge on the slaves who had enslaved them are punished for it. The mutineers are denied even the dignity of dying for their cause. Melville goes so far as to compare the sailors to "Highlanders"-Scottish warriors, widely considered to be savage-and dwells upon the mangled wounds inflicted by the sailors' sealing spears. The whites prove equal capable of any savagery the blacks can manage.