"Benito Cereno," one of Melville's most enduring and intriguing works, was first published in Putnam's Monthly in October, November and December, 1855. Melville later collected it in The Piazza Tales (1856), a collection that also included "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "The Bell-Tower." "Benito Cereno" is variously called a short story, a tale, and a short novel; it is thirty-four thousand words long, quite short for a novel, but too long to be conventionally designated a short story. What it lacks in length, however, it more than makes up for in depth, focus, and complexity.
Melville's source for "Benito Cereno" was chapter 18 of Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels (1817), in which he describes coming upon a ship following a slave mutiny. Delano's original narrative is approximately half the length of Melville's tale, and Melville departed from Delano in many important details. Among these, Delano cited the mutineer's ship as the Tryal and his own ship as the Perseverance. Melville altered these names to the Bachelor's Delight and the San Dominick, respectively. Melville also set his tale in 1799, whereas Delano had placed his in 1805. Many scholars have suggested that the combination of these two changes amount to an allusion to a slave rebellion which occurred on the island of San Domingo in 1799. At any rate, San Dominick has a powerful symbolic resonance in the story as a reference to the order of Saint Dominic, the Dominicans, who were the monastic order largely responsible for the Spanish Inquisition. Melville similarly changes many details of Delano's original narrative, charging them with symbolic significance.
Melville himself liked "Benito Cereno" quite a lot, and even considered naming his collection of tales, Benito Cereno & Other Sketches. The tale's reputation has varied, however, from era to era. Many critics of the mid-twentieth century, and some modern ones, regard "Benito Cereno" as an allegory of good and evil, with the simple-minded, optimistic Yankee, Captain Amasa Delano, representing good, the duplicitous Babo representing evil, and Benito Cereno representing a soul caught between them, fully aware of the moral struggle being played out before him. Proponents of this view generally consider "Benito Cereno" a well-executed tale, though they find the treatment of the African slaves racist, and are embarrassed that Melville chose an African slave to represent evil.
More recent criticism, however, has emphasized the shortcomings of this reading. While "Benito Cereno" certainly contains racist stereotypes, it by no means endorses such views. The tale is written, for the most part, from the limited point of view of Captain Delano, and his casually patronizing opinion of African slaves saturates the narrative. Delano, however, is ultimately quite a dull observer; his stereotypes are proved wrong, one by one. And far from calling Babo a representative of pure evil, this second branch of criticism emphasizes the motive behind Babo's ruthlessness - he is a slave. His killing of his master, and his mutiny, can only be understood in the context of his slavery. In this second reading, Babo is a revolutionary hero of sorts, muted and misinterpreted by the white observers of his actions, yet telling his story between the lines of Don Benito's.
Finally, it must be noted that Melville wrote his work in 1855, as the United States readied itself for Civil War. Many Americans, both in the North and South, held the same condescending opinions about blacks that Captain Delano expresses. Melville's tale bluntly and forcefully refutes such views, demonstrating that black slaves loathe their bondage - and loathe those who bind them - as much as white slaves would. Although he makes only passing reference to American slavery, Melville clearly shows both how the mutineers of the San Dominick abide by America's founding principles - "Live Free or Die" - and also how the barbarism of slavery gives way to other barbaric acts: murder, mutiny, cannibalism, and torture.
There is no simple way to interpret such a complex tale. However, there are symbolic patterns and literary figures that might allow the careful reader some purchase on Melville's intentions, or at any rate on the enduring discussions of race, violence, and performance that inform the work. "Benito Cereno," always timely in its discussion of the fruits of racial inequality, is one of Melville's most modern, urgent creations.