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Benito Cereno: Summary, Themes & Analysis

Instructor: James Thompson

James has served as a teaching assistant in humanities and has master's degrees in humanities and interdisciplinary studies.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at Benito Cereno, the novella about a slaver ship revolt written by Herman Melville in 1855. We'll be looking at the characters of the story, the story itself, its themes, and provide an analysis. Following this, you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

Melville and Cereno

Herman Melville, who is best known for his classic whaling novel Moby Dick, wrote his novella Benito Cereno, a story about a revolt on a slaver ship in 1855. He wrote it not just as an exciting adventure story, but also to underscore the cruelty of slavery and the hopeless desperation experienced by slaves.

Characters in Benito Cereno

Don Benito Cereno is a Spanish nobleman who is the captain of the San Dominick, a ship carrying African slaves and white passengers from Valparaiso, Chile to Callao, Peru in 1799.

Don Alexandro Aranda is a Spanish nobleman and friend of Don Benito Cereno's. He owns the slaves, but is killed by the slaves when they mutiny.

Babo is the leader of the slaves during their revolt. He is fluent in the Spanish language, so he can communicate well with Don Benito Cereno and the other Spaniards. Although he has a slight build and is small of stature, Babo is highly intelligent, resourceful, and daring.

Captain Amasa Delano is the American captain of a seal-hunting ship, the Bachelor's Delight. He is a kindly and warm-hearted person, so he offers assistance to those on board the San Dominick, not realizing that the slaves have taken command of the ship.

Plot Summary

Led by Babo, the slaves on board the San Dominick revolt and kill many of the whites, including their owner, Don Alexandro Aranda. Babo places Don Alexandro's skeleton on the ship's prow and writes 'Follow your leader' beneath it, as a grim warning: if the whites refuse to cooperate with the Africans, they will literally 'follow their leader' by being slain as he was. The San Dominick encounters an American seal-hunting ship, the Bachelor's Delight, and Babo hatches a plan to fool the Americans and take command of their ship, so the Africans can take its provisions and have an extra ship to carry them back to Africa.

At Babo's direction, Don Benito tells the captain of the Bachelor's Delight, Amasa Delano, that the San Dominick had been struck by a storm in which all the commanding officers, except for him, were washed overboard. Don Benito is constantly accompanied by Babo, who presents himself as Don Benito's faithful servant. Captain Delano becomes wary when Don Benito, at Babo's insistence, asks how many weapons are on board the Bachelor's Delight. Captain Delano begins to suspect that Don Benito may be a pirate whose real intent is to capture the Bachelor's Delight.

When Captain Delano gets into the rowboat to return to his own ship, Don Benito jumps in after him in a desperate attempt to escape the Africans. The Africans begin throwing knives and hatchets at the rowboat, but Captain Delano and his men succeed in rowing away from them. The American and Spanish sailors then unite to hunt down the San Dominick, which they soon capture, thanks to their superior weaponry. The slaves are tried for rebellion and executed, but Don Benito never recovers from his harrowing experience, and he dies shortly after Babo's execution.

Themes and Analysis

Have you ever wondered why hypnosis or magic tricks work? Sure, there's a bit of sleight of hand here or a calming voice there, but at the core of it comes from your own willingness to be deceived. This ties into the foremost theme in Benito Cereno, which is how easily human beings are deceived, and how willingly they often participate in their own deception. Although Captain Delano is skeptical of the story he's told on board the San Dominick, his suspicions rest squarely on Don Benito. Never does he suspect that the Africans may be deceiving him. Captain Delano is a kindly man who is personally opposed to slavery, but he's also a product of his place and time. Most whites in the eighteenth century believed that Africans were childlike, simple-minded, and not very intelligent. Captain Delano can accept the idea that a white man might be clever enough to deceive him, but he is unable to grasp the idea that Africans might do the same. Thus, Captain Delano is above all a victim of self-deception; this worldview that precludes him from seeing the reality of the situation in which he finds himself, and nearly costs him his life.

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