Literature Study GuidesBenito CerenoSection 3 The Boat Is Sighted Summary

Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Section 3 (The Boat is Sighted) | Summary



Captain Amasa Delano spots his whaling ship finally returning and feels a sense of relief. The rest of the ship spots it too, and amid the commotion, a fight breaks out. When Captain Delano points this out to Benito Cereno, the man begins to have a fit and is comforted by Babo. Captain Delano is distracted from the fight by the scene of Babo comforting Cereno, and offers Cereno 50 gold doubloons for Babo. Babo says his master "wouldn't part with [him] for a thousand doubloons," and Cereno is not yet recovered enough to answer. Captain Delano decides to talk to some of the sailors and try to get a better grasp on the happenings on the ship while waiting for his whaling boat to return. He walks through the crowd of people on the deck and stops at a single sailor who is tarring a strap. After observing this man for a few minutes, Delano decides he doesn't like the look of him and moves to talk to another sailor. The man corroborates Cereno's story of mishaps that had befallen ship and crew. Captain Delano then watches a young black woman sleeping with her baby and is brightened by the scene.

While wandering around the ship, Captain Delano catches sight of the Spanish sailor who made him feel uneasy earlier. The sailor is moving around in the main chains and a bunch of rigging, carrying a "marlingspike" (now spelled "marlinspike"), or a large spike used in nautical ropework. The man gestures to Delano but then skitters away as though frightened by something. Captain Delano can't decide the meaning of the gesture, however, and does nothing. He watches his boat get closer, but it is moving slowly and struggling against a tide-rip. Eventually it reaches the San Dominick and bumps up against the ship.


Captain Amasa Delano's character and prejudices are further illuminated in this section of the tale. While he continues to go round and round in his head between unease and goodwill, he also makes some observations about people on board the San Dominick that allow more insight into the captain's personality. After watching Babo caring for Cereno, a moved Delano tries to buy Babo from Cereno. In this moment his regard for Babo takes on a certain character. It becomes clear Delano does not value Babo as a person, but as an object he might purchase for himself. It is interesting Delano thinks he could purchase Babo's loyalty, as well as his person. Babo's loyalty is the main thing Delano is intrigued with, yet to think it could be transferred so easily from one person to another through purchase would make it a weak sort of loyalty.

Later, Captain Delano goes in search of a sailor to talk to and corroborate Cereno's story. Notably, he ignores all of the black sailors or workers and only approaches a sailor who is fairer skinned. Afterwards, the captain sees a black woman sleeping with her baby awake and trying to get milk from his mother. He likens them to a doe and fawn, using terms like "paws" and "rooting" to describe the child. This choice of analogy and description indicates Delano sees the black people around him more as animals than as human beings. Perhaps pleasant animals, but animals nonetheless. Interestingly, he sees the other black mothers and their relationships with their children as "uncivilized" because they are "tender of heart and tough of constitution" and willing to die or fight for their children. But this definition seems as though it could apply to any mother and therefore appears a strange logic to lead to the conclusion that the women are uncivilized. However, it supports the characterization of Delano as someone who sees black people as simple, "pure," and animalistic. In fact, in a moment of trying to deduce who might be in on any sort of nefarious plan endangering him, he dismisses the black people on the ship because he assumes them too "stupid" and simple to plot, and in contrast he suspects the white people aboard, whom he regards as the naturally "shrewder race."

Though Delano continues to describe bouts of unease, or "dreamy inquietude," he never fails to swing back into the comfort of the idea that nothing bad could befall him. Delano convinces himself it is too absurd for him to be murdered "at the ends of the earth" and claims "his conscience is clean," as though this has some power to keep him from harm. This conclusion paints Captain Delano as extremely naive and full of self-importance to reason that his death in this place is unlikely or unthinkable. In fact, he has understood very little of anything around him.

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