Literature Study GuidesBenito CerenoSection 1 Benito Cerenos Story Summary

Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Section 1 (Benito Cereno's Story) | Summary

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Melville's Benito Cereno does not have chapters. For the purpose of summary and analysis, this guide divides the text into six sections and includes parenthetical descriptions, for each section, based on the novella's plot.

Summary

Captain Amasa Delano has anchored his trading ship in the harbor of a tiny deserted island off the coast of southern Chile, when another ship enters the bay. The ship has no flag raised, as is the tradition for peaceful ships, and yet the Captain Delano still goes out in his small whaling boat to check on the strange ship. Its movements are erratic, and when he approaches he notices it is an old-style Spanish merchant ship called the San Dominick, but that it seems in a sad state of neglect. The black members of the crew seem to outnumber the white, a fact that puzzles the captain. Captain Delano tells the sailors who accompanied him to go back to their own ship and retrieve supplies to help out those stranded on the drifting ship; he himself stays onboard. The Spanish captain of the San Dominick, Benito Cereno, seems to Captain Delano to be strangely morose and unable to control his crew. Captain Delano witnesses Cereno's close relationship with his servant Babo, and how differently Cereno treats Babo from the contempt or disinterest he shows to everyone else.

Captain Delano asks Cereno what happened to the ship, and Cereno gladly tells him the story. The ship originally set sail from Buenos Aires, headed for Lima in the other side of South America, and was full of all kinds of goods and significantly more crew and passengers. They lost many officers and sailors because of a bad storm near Cape Horn. After the storm many aboard the ship died as a result of scurvy. Because of damage and lack of sailors the ship began to drift until a fever killed all the remaining officers and many of the other people on board. Cereno tells Captain Delano the black people on board may seem disruptive, but that they have actually been a great help.

Analysis

Much of this first section is given over to Captain Delano's observations of Cereno. He tries to be "charitable" but is in fact extremely bothered by Cereno's lack of interest in his ship or crew, though he notes he is somewhat relieved to realize Cereno's reticence is not directed particularly at himself. Captain Delano immediately sees Cereno's strange behavior as a sign of some madness, describing him as "the involuntary victim of mental disorder."

Aside from the descriptions of Cereno and the ship from Captain Delano's viewpoint, there is also quite a lot of attention paid to the black members of the crew. The narrator describes the people on the ship with the prejudice of the day, seeming both to look down on them and also glorify them, especially in the case of Babo, in a way that is heavily biased and also disregards the fact that the black people on board are, in fact, slaves being transported. The narrator describes them as "unsophisticated Africans," while the Spanish captain is "gentlemanly" and "reserved looking." It appears the black people aboard the ship are not "emigrating," as Captain Delano first observes, but are actually slaves being transported to Lima. Cereno mentions "their owner was quite right in assuring me that no fetters would be needed with his blacks," when explaining to Captain Delano how helpful they have been since the loss of all his officers and many of his sailors. Captain Delano is struck with joy at the relationship between Babo and Cereno and repeatedly refers to Babo as a "servant" and even a "friend," though Babo is clearly one of the slaves being transported. This same combination of derisiveness and idealization characterizes the narrator's descriptions of the native people in Melville's novel Typee.

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