American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

“BENITO CERENO” (1856). “Benito Cereno” is a long story by Herman Melville* (1819-1891) that was first published in three parts in Putnam’s Magazine (1855) and then included in The Piazza Tales (1856). It is based on the true-life experiences of Captain Amasa Delano* of Duxbury, Massachusetts, which Delano had recounted in A Narrative of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville retained the historical characters’ names but added his characteristic mixture of irony and mystery to the account of a slave rebellion aboard a ship traveling off the coast of South America. He concludes his story with excerpts from the legal deposition of Don Benito Cereno, which add chilling insight to his fiction.

Melville’s story is set in the year 1799. At a small island on the southern coast of Chile, Captain Delano observes the San Dominick, badly in need of repairs, approach the harbor. He boards the vessel in an attempt to find out what has happened and to offer aid. The San Dominick's captain, Benito Cereno, a strangely subdued and nervous young man, supplies him with a singular account. Cereno had started out from Buenos Aires bound for Lima in the company of his slave-owner friend, numerous other crewmen, and his friend’s group of slaves. Strange calms and fevers had reduced the crew to only a few, although the slaves had not fared as badly. During the course of the day, Captain Delano notices with suspicion the strange behavior of many of the slaves, particularly Cereno’s personal slave, Babo, and the unsettled and melancholy behavior of Cereno himself. These mysterious signs prompt Delano to suspect that Cereno and his slaves are plotting against the Americans. Not until Delano disembarks to return to his own ship, however, does he learn anything of the truth: that the slaves have gained control of the ship. Cereno unexpectedly leaps from his own ship into Captain Delano’s boat, and the slaves attempt to escape in the San Dominick but are captured by Delano’s men. During the course of the ensuing voyage to Concepcion, Delano learns that Cereno’s friends, including the slaves’ master, Don Alexandro Aranda, had been killed by the slaves in a mutiny, and the remaining men were forced to attempt to sail the ship to Senegal. Cereno dies in a monastery in Lima after the mutineers, including ringleader Babo, are executed.

The story makes a penetrating statement on racial and political conditions of the time, prophetically figuring the institution of slavery as a masquerade threatening to break out of control. More than a century later, poet Robert Lowell,* recognizing the story’s rich potential for social commentary, adapted “Benito Cereno” into drama as part of his trilogy of plays The Old Glory (1964), which also makes use of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.* Lowell reset Melville’s story in the year 1800, cast it in free verse, and used it as a medium for discussion of such current events as the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle. The production of Lowell’s play won five Obie Awards. [See also SLAVE NARRATIVES]

FURTHER READING: Buckholder, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” New York: O. K. Hall, 1992; Gross, Seymour Lee. A Benito Cereno Handbook. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1965; Levine, Robert S. Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. New York: Cambridge UP, 1989; Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Christopher Lee