Benito Cereno

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This article is about the novella. For the film adaptation, see Benito Cereno (film). For the writer, see Benito Cereno (writer).
"Benito Cereno"
Herman Melville 1885.jpg
1885 Portrait of Melville
Author Herman Melville
Country United States of America
Language English
Published in 1855, 1856
Publisher Putnam's Monthly

Benito Cereno is a novella by Herman Melville. It was first serialized in Putnam's Monthly in 1855 and later included a slightly revised version in his collection The Piazza Tales (1856).


In developing the novella, Melville drew almost exclusively on the memoir of the real Captain Amasa Delano, whom Melville depicts as the main protagonist and focal character. Delano recounts how in 1805, his vessel Perseverance encountered the Spanish Tryal (not to be confused with the 17th-century British Tryall), a ship whose slaves had overthrown the Spanish sailors. The narrative of events in the novel closely follows the actual event.[1][2]


The story follows a sea captain, Amasa Delano, (the fictionalized version of a real-life adventurer by the same name) and his crew on the Bachelor's Delight as it is approached by another, rather battered-looking ship, the San Dominick. Upon boarding the San Dominick, Delano is immediately greeted by white sailors and black slaves begging for supplies. An inquisitive Delano ponders the mysterious social atmosphere aboard the badly bruised ship and notes the figurehead, which is mostly concealed by a tarpaulin revealing only the inscription: "Follow your leader." Delano soon encounters the ship's noticeably timid but polite Spanish captain, Don Benito Cereno. Cereno is constantly attended to by his personal slave, Babo, whom Cereno keeps in close company even when Delano suggests that Babo leave the two in private to discuss matters that are clearly being avoided. Delano, however, does not bother Cereno to ask questions about the odd superficiality of their conversation; he believes Cereno's assertion that he and his crew have recently gone through a debilitating series of troubles, having been at sea now for an unsettingly long time. Cereno tells of these tribulations, including horrendous weather patterns and the fate of the slaves' master, Alexandro Aranda, who Cereno claims took fever aboard the ship and died.

Gradually, however, Delano's suspicions increase, based on his noting Cereno's sudden waves of dizziness and anxiety, the crew's awkward movements and whisperings, and the unusual interaction of the ship's white and black residents. After his men finally drop off the supplies from the Bachelor's Delight which he promised to the San Dominick, Delano prepares to leave when suddenly Cereno jumps overboard, pursued by a dagger-wielding Babo. The canvas falls off the ship's figurehead, revealing the strung-up skeleton of Alexandro Aranda. Suddenly, a battle erupts, initiated by the ship's slaves upon Delano's crew. Delano's men stop Babo from killing Cereno and they eventually capture the San Dominick's black insurgents, suffering a few casualties on their own side.

Delano then recounts what happened aboard the San Dominick prior to the story thus far, according to what he later learns: that the black slaves overthrew the white crew and killed Aranda, keeping some sailors, including its captain, Cereno, alive. The slaves wanted Cereno to sail them back to Africa; however, the ship was hardly equipped for the transatlantic journey, so Cereno directed the ship toward the coast in the hopes of being rescued, though claiming to the slaves that he was merely seeking more supplies. When the Bachelor's Delight came into view, the slaves hid Aranda's body and told the white sailors to be quiet and acquiescent on threat of death. Cereno was presented as the captain in control, when in fact Babo secretly manipulated the entire situation.

Delano concludes his story with the trial and execution of Babo. He notes, interestingly, that Cereno seems devastated by Babo's death, falls into a deep depression, and dies himself a few months later. Delano ponders about how Cereno, in a role reversal as Babo's "slave" followed by the death of one and then the other, indeed seemed to abide by his ship's inscription: "Follow your leader."

Critical response[edit]

The novella centers on a slave rebellion on board a Spanish merchant ship in 1799 and, because of its ambiguity, has been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist (Newman 1986). When it was published in 1855, it was certainly understood as a commentary on race and the republic. It was published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine around the same time that DeBow's Review, a "virulently pro-slavery" magazine, denounced Putnam's as "the leading review of the Black Republican party." [3] Literary historian Andrew Delbanco writes that, at that time, Putnam's "was becoming increasingly belligerent on the slavery issue" (230). However, by the mid-20th century, at least some critics read Benito Cereno as a tale that primarily explores human depravity and does not reflect upon race at all [4]/ Melville's most recent biographer, Andrew Delbanco, emphasizes the topicality of Benito Cereno in a post-September 11th world: "In our own time of terror and torture, Benito Cereno has emerged as the most salient of Melville's works: a tale of desperate men in the grip of a vengeful fury that those whom they hate cannot begin to understand".[5] The narrative is divided into two parts: the narrative of Captain Delano's encounter with the San Dominick, and the concluding legal depositions of the Europeans who survived the rebellion.

The primary source for the plot, as well as some of the text, was Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, chapter 18 (1817),[6] though Benito Cereno contains crucial changes and expansions that make it a very different text. The most transformative change lies in the narrator, or rather in the way in which the tale is told.

The crucial information that the slaves have murdered all the senior Spanish seamen except the captain Benito Cereno is withheld from the reader. The Spanish sailors, and specifically Cereno, are forced to play along in a theatrical performance for the benefit of the American Amasa Delano who initially approaches the dilapidated Spanish ship to offer his assistance. Though written in the third person, the narrative emerges largely through the point of view of Delano throughout the first and longest part of the narrative and therefore remains limited to what Delano sees (or thinks he sees).

Delano represents a version of New England innocence which has also been read as strategy to ensure colonial power over both Spain and Africans in the "New World". [7] Babo, who plays the faithful body servant to the Spanish captain (representing European aristocracy), is the mastermind behind both the revolt and the subsequent subterfuge. The enslaved Africans have ruthlessly killed their "owner", Alexandro Aranda, and other key officers on the ship to force the captain and the remaining crew to take them back to Africa.

To some earlier critics, Babo represented evil, but more recent criticism has moved to reading Babo as the heroic leader of a slave rebellion whose tragic failure does not diminish the genius of the rebels. In an inversion of contemporary racial stereotypes, Babo is portrayed as a physically weak man of great intellect, his head (impaled on a spike at the end of the story) a "hive of subtlety".[8] In contrast, the supposedly civilized American Delano is duped by Babo and his comrades for the duration of the novella, only defeating him and rescuing the distraught Cereno through brute strength and extreme violence.


Poet Robert Lowell wrote a stage adaptation of Benito Cereno for The Old Glory, his trilogy of plays, in 1964. The Old Glory was initially produced off-Broadway in 1964 for the American Place Theatre. It was later revived off-Broadway in 1976. In 2011, Benito Cereno was performed in another off-Broadway production without the other two plays of the trilogy.[9]

Yusef Komunyakaa wrote a poem, "Captain Amasa Delano's Dilemma," based on Benito Cereno. The poem was first published in American Poetry Review in 1996.[citation needed]

Gary J. Whitehead's poem "Babo Speaks from Lima," based on Benito Cereno, was first published in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies in 2003.[10] It was reprinted in A Glossary of Chickens (Princeton University Press, 2013).


  1. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (January 27, 2014). "Book Review:On This Spanish Slave Ship, Nothing Was As It Seemed". NPR. Retrieved January 27, 2014. 
  2. ^ Grandin, Greg (January 27, 2014). "Noam Chomsky is right: It’s the so-called serious who devastate the planet and cause the wars". Salon. 
  3. ^ DelBanco, p230.
  4. ^ For example, Feltenstein 1947
  5. ^ Feltenstein, 230
  6. ^ McCall 2002, 34
  7. ^ cf. Sundquist 1993
  8. ^ McCall 2002, 102
  9. ^ Revival Article in Playbill
  10. ^ Whitehead, Gary J. (October 2003). "Babo Speaks from Lima". Leviathan 5 (2): 86–87. doi:10.1111/j.1750-1849.2003.tb00081.x. Retrieved 2013-09-15. 

Works cited[edit]

  • Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  • Feltenstein, Rosalie. "Melville's Benito Cereno." American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 19.3 (1947): 245-55.
  • Grandin, Greg. "Obama, Melville and the Tea Party." New York Times online, Sunday, January 18, 2014.
  • McCall, Dan. Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. New York, NY: Norton, 2002.
  • Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. "Benito Cereno." A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Ed. Lea Bertani Vozar Newman. A Reference Publication in Literature. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1986.
  • Sale, Maggie Montesinos. The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. "The Tambourine in Glory: African Culture and Melville's Art." The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Ed. Robert S. Levine. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 37-64.
  • Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

  • ':Benito Cereno':. The full text of the version published in The Piazza Tales (1856), which is the version that is usually anthologized.
  • Benito Cereno public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • Putnam's Monthly at the "Making of America" site of Cornell University, a site that has digital images of many significant nineteenth century books and periodicals. Benito Cereno was serialized in the October, November and December issues of 1855.
  • Perspectives in American Literature, Chapter 3: Early Nineteenth Century: Herman Melville (1819–1891), Benito Cereno. Additional references for Benito Cereno.The site also contains other useful links relating to Herman Melville and American literature.
  • New York Times editorial comparing the situations presented in the novella to reactions to the presidency of Barack Obama