Benito Cereno

Benito Cereno Summary and Analysis of Section 4


At the opening of this section, Melville provides the main part of Benito Cereno's testimony before the vice-regal court:

Cereno reports that the San Dominick set forth from Valparaiso on May 20, 1798, with a crew of thirty-six, bound for Callao, with a large cargo as well as one hundred and sixty slaves belonging to Don Alexandro Aranda. The deposition names several of these slaves, including Babo, Atufal, the six Ashantis, and the four elderly watchers. Cereno testifies that Aranda was accustomed to letting his slaves roam freely without chains and sleep on the deck at night. One night, at about three in the morning, the slaves revolted, killing most of the Spaniards on board. They left alive enough men to act as a crew, and ordered Cereno to carry them to the nearest "negro country," Senegal, where they might live as free men and women. Despite the seeming impossibility of this venture, Babo insists upon it.

Cereno recalls that in the ensuing days, the slaves plotted over whether or not to kill the remaining Spaniards. They decided to kill Aranda, whose death would ensure their liberty. Cereno attempted to deter them, but finally Babo ordered two of the Ashanti warriors, Matiluqui and Lecbe, to carry out his order. Aranda was killed on the deck in front of the whole company as a warning, and then his body was taken down into the hold. After three days, Aranda's remains were revealed: he was nothing but a skeleton. According to Babo's orders, Aranda's skeleton was fixed to the helm of the ship as a new figurehead, replacing the "proper" figurehead of Christopher Columbus. Under the skeleton, Babo wrote, "Follow your leader," warning of the fate the Spaniards could expect if they defied the slave's rule. In the following days, the ship fell into a "calamitous calm," leaving much of the crew sick and parched. In this irritable mood the mate, Raneds, who was the last remaining navigator on boards besides Cereno, raised the slaves' suspicion. He was killed.

After a long passage of days filled with such misery, Cereno reports that the San Dominick caught sight of another boat, the Bachelor's Delight, captained by Amasa Delano. At the sight of this ship many of the slaves became anxious, though Babo calmed them, planning to put on a show for the captain of the ship. Babo, pretending to be an especially solicitous slave, would be in a position to overhear everything Cereno and Delano might say to one another; meanwhile, he would have a dagger at Cereno's back at all times. He also invented the show of presenting Atufal in chains, which could be dropped at any moment, and idea of having the Ashantis sharpen their hatchets as though busy at work, when in fact they were at the ready to kill Delano or Cereno.

Cereno describes the events of the day Delano spent on board the San Dominick. In the course of Delano's visit, Babo made it known to Cereno that he planned to take over Delano's ship, if possible. Babo forced Cereno, at knifepoint, to ask Delano questions about the Bachelor's Delight's cargo, arsenal, and crew, with the plan to overtake the ship after nightfall. Cereno narrates in his deposition how he managed to foil Babo's plot by leaping aboard the Bachelor's Delight after Delano. The deposition glosses over the ensuing battle, in which the San Dominick was captured and the rebellion quelled.

Cereno's deposition then lingers over the major players in the mutiny. Babo "was the plotter from first to last; he ordered every murder, and was the helm and keel of the revolt." The Ashantis, especially Lecbe, Yau, and Matiluqui, were ruthless in their executions. Cereno hints that the slaves disposed of the flesh of Don Alexandro Aranda in an unspeakably horrid manner. And he attests that even the women participated fully and gladly in the killing of their master, Don Aranda; in fact, they would have preferred to torture him before putting him to death. In short, all of the slaves on board, no matter how mild they seemed beforehand and whether or not they originally participated in overthrowing the command, ultimately approved of the revolt.

Cereno's deposition then, in a roundabout way, recounts several of the events that took place during and after Delano's time on board the San Dominick. He recalls that those Spanish sailors who tried to reveal the truth of the mutiny to Delano were instantly beaten. Cereno also testifies that during the boarding of the San Dominick by Delano's men, a Spanish sailor, Hermenegildo Gandix, who was forced to steer the San Dominick, was killed by an American musket-ball. Most importantly, Cereno notes that Delano's sailors killed several of the slaves following the capture of the San Dominick: a regrettable occurrence, in Cereno's view, because the object of the capture had been to secure the property aboard the San Dominick - slaves included. Cereno concludes his deposition by saying that he is "broken in body and mind," and that he plans to live out his life in a monastery on Mount Agonia.

Following Cereno's deposition there is a coda of sorts, which depicts a conversation between Cereno and Delano. The two recall together how Babo had forced Cereno to "enact the part" of an ungracious host to Delano. Cereno says that the least hint that he might have dropped to Delano would have meant death for both of them. Delano suggests to Cereno that he get over the whole ordeal, but Cereno cannot. He cannot escape his memory. Delano asks, "You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?" and Cereno responds, "The negro."

Benito Cereno ends with a brief account of Babo's death. After his revolt is foiled, Babo spends the short remainder of his life in utter silence. He is hanged and beheaded, and the rest of his body is cremated. The head, though, is mounted on a stake overlooking both the bones of Don Aranda in St. Bartholomew's church as well as the monastery on Mount Agonia, where, three months after his deposition, Benito Cereno "follow[s] his leader," Babo, into death.


The deposition marks a decisive shift in tone. Gone is the poetic language, the complex symbolic texture of the tale. Instead, we have the appearance of a bona fide testimony. But, again, this is only an appearance. The testimony tells one side of the tale - Cereno's - and pretends that this account passes for the whole truth. Some feel that it does, but perhaps there is another tale lurking between the lines of "Benito Cereno." Perhaps the deposition's insistence on tying things up ever so nicely is a mask, concealing the uncertainty at the heart of the tale.

The deposition contains a great deal of information that reflects back on the rest of the narrative, small details that enrich the tale even further. For instance, there is the suggestion of cannibalism in the disposal of Aranda's body. We also learn that the original figurehead of the San Dominick was of "Christopher Colon" - that is, Christopher Columbus. This image aligns "Benito Cereno" as a kind of counter-narrative to the Edenic imagery often identified with accounts of racial encounters in America. The San Dominick is a "New World" of sorts, and Delano a guileless explorer of it. Race is not nearly as simple as his prejudice leads him to expect. Perhaps Melville wants to suggest that the reader, like Delano, is an explorer in a familiar territory, hopefully learning more than Delano does about the feebleness of racial stereotypes. After all, Melville wrote "Benito Cereno" while America prepared to fight the Civil War, struggling with itself and its own racist imagination.

Following the deposition, there is a brief but very important exchange between Cereno and Delano. Cereno lies dying of the memory of his ordeal on the San Dominick, and Delano says, "The past is passed; why moralize upon it?" Delano has not been fazed; his opinions hold fast. Perhaps he simply loathes blacks now, instead of simply loving them - certainly his basic character is unaltered. The moral implications of his own beliefs are beyond him.

Cereno, on the other hand, knows very well the implications of his experience. When Delano asks him, "What has cast such a shadow upon you?" and Cereno replies, "The negro," he is not referring merely to Babo. The whole complex difficulty of slavery and mastery weigh on Cereno; he has seen the horror upon which his civilization peacefully slumbers; he knows that beneath the grinning facade of a servant there is hidden a Babo, capable of genius in his passion to be free. The final, wonderful image of the tale - Babo's head fitted on a pike, still capable of casting a shadow over Cereno's life - is perhaps the most truthful mask of all: the eloquence of the silenced suffering of a race, unheard by Delano, but deafeningly loud to those, like Cereno, who have ears with which to hear it.

Beginning in the early and middle twentieth century, critics tended to see "Benito Cereno" as a parable or allegory of good and evil. To simplify their reading: Babo represents pure evil, the trusting Delano represents innocence, and the tormented Cereno represents the effects of evil on a sensitive soul. For these critics, it is an unfortunate artifact of Melville's age that black people happen to represent evil, and whites good. The story is not about the morality of slavery; it is simply a beautiful, disturbing portrait of clashing absolutes.

Some still read "Benito Cereno" that way. However, given the care with which Melville renders the savagery of the whites, given the verve and closeness with which Melville renders Babo's brilliant stagings on board the San Dominick, and given the care with which Melville undermines every one of Delano's racist musings, it seems safe to argue that there is more going on in "Benito Cereno" than those past critics ever saw.

The great missing voice in "Cereno," undoubtedly, is Babo's. Certainly Babo was an inventive and imaginative force, defiant even in his silence, even in his death. For some, Babo is one of Melville's most heroic, creative, dignified creations: a small man with a "hive of subtlety" on his shoulders and a dream of escape from a society that treats him and his kind like chattel.