Benito Cereno Summary, Characters and Themes

Benito Cereno is a novella by Herman Melville. 

It tells the story of a slave revolt aboard a Spanish ship and the American captain who unwittingly becomes involved, misinterpreting the power dynamics he observes.


In 1799, the American sealing ship Bachelor’s Delight, under the command of the trusting Captain Amasa Delano, is anchored off the coast of Chile. Delano notices a distressed-looking ship, the San Dominick, and decides to offer assistance. Upon boarding, he finds Spanish captain Benito Cereno, a handful of other Spanish sailors, and a large number of enslaved Africans. 

Delano finds Cereno’s behavior odd—the man seems distant, nervous, and constantly shadowed by his enslaved servant, Babo.

Delano dismisses his initial suspicions as he attributes Cereno’s demeanor to the hardships endured at sea. He learns that the San Dominick, a slave ship, suffered a devastating loss of life due to disease while sailing around Cape Horn. 

Delano’s naïve optimism and inherent racial biases blind him to the subtle cues scattered throughout the decaying vessel. He misinterprets the enslaved Africans’ desperation for water and food as simple pleas for help, not seeing their plight as a result of their own suppressed rebellion.

Throughout the day, Delano witnesses a series of disturbing events – a chained but defiant African leader, a young African boy slashing a Spanish sailor, and tense, whispered conversations between Cereno and Babo that unsettle him. Cereno’s odd lack of control over his ‘property’ baffles the American captain.

Delano becomes further concerned during Babo’s close shave of Cereno. Babo nicks Cereno, an incident he claims was met with punishment by the captain. As the day progresses, Delano makes several attempts to steer Cereno towards private conversations to unravel the mystery, but Babo remains ever-present.

With a slight breeze catching, Delano pilots the San Dominick closer to his own ship. When he invites Cereno aboard for coffee, the Spaniard refuses, deepening Delano’s unease. 

As Delano prepares to return to the Bachelor’s Delight, Cereno and Babo suddenly leap into the whaleboat. There, Babo attempts to stab his former master, revealing the shocking truth: the enslaved Africans have long ago revolted.

In the ensuing chaos, Delano and his men overpower the rebels. The veil of deception falls as the figurehead of the San Dominick is uncovered, revealing the skeletal remains of Alexandro Aranda, the ship’s true owner. 

The elaborate charade was a desperate bid for freedom by the enslaved Africans, who had been controlling the Spanish sailors under threat of violence.

At trial, the extent of Babo’s cunning and strategic leadership of the revolt is revealed. 

Babo, the architect of the uprising, refuses to defend himself and is sentenced to death. Cereno, broken and traumatized, secludes himself in a monastery and dies soon after. 

The story ends with the grim spectacle of Babo’s severed head displayed as a brutal reminder of the ever-present power dynamics of the era.

Benito Cereno Summary, Characters and Themes


Captain Amasa Delano

Delano is the embodiment of American optimism and, perhaps more pointedly, American naiveté. He’s a practical and well-intentioned man, but his worldview is deeply shaped by his culture and environment

This makes him susceptible to misinterpretations of the events aboard the San Dominick.

Delano’s racial prejudices deeply color his perceptions. He sees the enslaved Africans through a paternalistic lens, viewing them as inherently less intelligent and capable than white Europeans. 

This blindness prevents him from recognizing the true power dynamics at play, ultimately jeopardizing his safety and his crew’s.

While his flaws are central to the story, he himself is somewhat one-dimensional. He serves as a symbol of the dangers of unexamined assumptions and privilege, but lacks the psychological depth that might make him a more fully realized character.

Don Benito Cereno

Cereno’s apparent weakness and bizarre behavior are the central enigma Delano tries to unravel. Yet, Cereno is not simply ill or unstable. He is trapped within a terrifying charade, living under constant threat from the very people he appears to command. 

His erratic emotions reflect the terror and desperation he must constantly conceal.

While Cereno initially appears pitiable, his past as a slave trader casts a shadow on his innocence. 

The novella raises difficult questions about the extent to which even those victimized by a cruel system remain complicit in it. Cereno’s death, arguably a delayed consequence of his ordeal, can be seen as both tragic and as a form of indirect justice.


Babo is the most complex and compelling figure in the novella. 

He is the architect of the rebellion, a brilliant tactician who orchestrates a performance of subservience to deceive Delano and mask the revolt. His intelligence and cunning challenge the racist assumptions held by both Cereno and Delano.

While Babo’s brilliance is undeniable, his actions are also brutal. His rebellion involves violence and a willingness to manipulate everyone, including other enslaved Africans. 

The novella offers no easy judgment on Babo; does his struggle for freedom justify the methods he employs?

Additionally, Babo represents the unyielding will of the oppressed. 

His very existence, and his eventual execution, are a harsh indictment of the slave system itself. Whether interpreted as a tragic hero or a more ambiguous figure, his defiance is a powerful force within the novella.

The other characters, such as the enslaved Africans and the few remaining Spanish sailors, function more as types than fully developed individuals. 

However, Melville uses figures like Atufal, the regally defiant enslaved man in chains, to hint at the depth and diversity of personality even within the oppressive confines of the slave ship.


1. The Unreliability of Appearances

The enslaved Africans meticulously construct a false reality. They reverse the expected power dynamic, presenting themselves as docile while subtly intimidating Cereno and the Spanish sailors. 

Their performance relies on subtle gestures, strategic silences, and orchestrated incidents designed to reinforce Delano’s preconceived notions about race and shipboard hierarchy.

Delano’s perspective is the lens through which we read the story. 

His assumptions about how a slave ship should function, as well as his inherent trust in the authority of a fellow white captain, prevent him from recognizing the clues the rebels subtly disseminate. 

He dismisses the threatening air of Atufal, the regality of the chained African leader, as simply part of the chaos on board.

The literal fog at the beginning of the novella mirrors the metaphorical fog of deception. 

This motif of obscured vision emphasizes how easily Delano’s perceptions are manipulated, even by seemingly obvious details like the chalked “Follow your leader” that takes on a sinister meaning in retrospect.

2. Slavery and Racial Bias as Dehumanizing

Even as he notes the miserable condition of the enslaved people, Delano’s descriptions dehumanize them. 

Despite acknowledging their suffering, he refers to them with terms like “creatures” and “skeletons,” revealing the subconscious impact of racist ideology. His view of Africans as inherently different and less capable prevents him from understanding the full reality of their plight.

The rebels understand how they are perceived. 

They exploit Delano’s prejudices, acting desperate and unorganized to mask their true intentions. They know that Delano will not see them as capable of the cunning and strategic planning required for a successful revolt.

Melville exposes the horrific logic of slavery. The system depended on the dehumanization of the enslaved, allowing captors to both inflict suffering and remain blind to the full humanity of the people they controlled. This was necessary to maintain the moral dissonance required by the trade.

3. The Ambiguity of Morality

Melville offers no simple answers. 

Delano’s intentions are good yet his actions perpetuate harm. Cereno is pitiable but has participated in a horrific system. Babo fights for righteous freedom, yet his methods are brutal and deceptive.

Cereno’s moral compass collapses under the trauma of the rebellion. He becomes complicit in his own oppression out of a desire for survival. This shows how even seemingly “good” people can be warped by extreme circumstances and the systems that create them.

The rebellion, though born of desperation, leads to further violence and death. This raises questions about whether violence can ever truly be a justifiable means to even a noble end. 

Melville presents no clear answer, leaving the reader to grapple with the complex consequences.

4. Power and Performance

The true power lies with those pretending to be subjugated. Babo meticulously orchestrates both the rebellion and the deception, weaponizing his knowledge of how a slave is expected to behave to mask his authority.

Cereno and the Spaniards maintain the mere appearance of authority while being completely at the mercy of the rebels. This emphasizes the fragility of power and how it can be contingent on perception rather than actual force.

The rebels wield unspoken power through veiled threats and psychological pressure. They are aware that their survival is tied to the performance they give and that slipping out of character would lead to certain doom.

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