Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Plot Summary

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Benito Cereno's Story

Captain Amasa Delano's ship, Bachelor's Delight, sits in the bay of the uninhabited island of St. Maria off the coast of Chile, where he has temporarily put down anchor in order to replenish the ship's water supply. While anchored in the bay, Captain Delano catches sight of a ship entering the bay that appears to be having trouble steering and is flying no flag (or, "colors"). Captain Delano, being a good-natured person, worries the ship is in trouble and takes a whaleboat out to see if they need aid or supplies. Upon arrival at the ship, called the San Dominick, he is greeted by the captain, Benito Cereno, whose crew strangely seems to be made up of a few Spanish sailors and large numbers of black passengers or sailors. Cereno is attended by his servant Babo, a black man, and seems to Captain Delano's eye strangely prone to melancholy and fits of weakness or illness. Captain Delano asks Cereno what has befallen the ship, and Cereno tells a story of storms, scurvy, and a contagious fever that wiped out a large amount of his crew.

Growing Suspicion

As they walk around the ship and discuss plans for Captain Delano to aid Cereno, Captain Delano begins to have twinges of apprehension. He sees a black boy gash a white boy's head with a knife and is disturbed that Cereno seems to think nothing of the incident. Captain Delano also notices a Spanish sailor acting strangely and becomes more nervous when Cereno and Babo move away from Delano and are clearly whispering about him.

The Boat is Sighted

Deciding to talk to some of the sailors and corroborate Cereno's story, Captain Delano moves about the ship. He oscillates between unease and finding good-natured rational explanations for everything he observes. He feels a sense of relief, however, when his boat returns with water and some food supplies for the ship. Captain Delano helps dole out the water and food and is surprised when Cereno insists on sharing everything equally with the black passengers as well as the white.

A Fair Wind

Afterwards, Captain Delano follows Cereno and Babo to a cabin on board called a "cuddy," where Babo gives the reluctant Cereno a shave. Captain Delano is confused by the way Cereno shakes in seeming fear as his servant shaves him. Then the three men retire to eat dinner and discuss repayment for sails and other supplies Captain Delano will give the ship. A wind springs up in the right direction, and Captain Delano helps steer the San Dominick farther into the bay and near his own ship. He gets into the boat manned by his sailors to return him to his own ship, when Cereno comes out on deck to shake his hand.

The Truth Revealed

As soon as Captain Delano is fully in the boat and the boat is on the water, Cereno suddenly leaps into it. While the sailors and Captain Delano struggle with Cereno, many of the black men aboard the San Dominick leap into the water to come after the boat. The sailors manage to get clear of all but Babo, who gets into the boat and first attempts to stab Captain Delano, and then Cereno. Babo is captured and restrained. Captain Delano suddenly understands that Cereno had been a prisoner aboard his own ship and that the black people on board had commandeered it. Captain Delano sends a party of boats manned by his sailors to capture the San Dominick, which they successfully do.

The Denouement

The ships then travel together to Lima, where a trial occurs. The final section of the book is primarily in the form of documents detailing Cereno's testimony of what really happened aboard the San Dominick. He explains the black people, mostly slaves belonging to his friend Alexandro Aranda, mutinied and killed his friend and many of the other sailors. They used Aranda's skeleton as a figurehead on the ship and demanded Cereno help them sail back to Senegal. They stopped at the bay of St. Maria Island in order to pick up water, and when Captain Delano came aboard, Babo forced Cereno to play a role and tell Captain Delano an elaborate story as their cover. After the trial Babo is hanged and Cereno goes to live in a monastery, where he dies a few months later.

Benito Cereno Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Captain Amasa Delano sights the San Dominick.

Rising Action

2 Benito Cereno explains the plight of the ship.

3 Captain Delano's boat returns with supplies.

4 Captain Delano begins to feel suspicious.

5 Babo gives Cereno a shave.

6 Captain Delano helps sail the ship into the cove.

7 Delano gets into his boat to return to his ship.

8 Cereno leaps into Delano's boat.


9 Babo and the other mutineers try to kill Cereno and Delano.

Falling Action

10 Delano's sailors take control of the San Dominick.

11 The two ships sail to Lima for trial.


12 Babo is hanged, and Cereno dies in a monastery.

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