Literature Study GuidesBenito CerenoSection 6 The Denouement Summary

Benito Cereno | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Benito Cereno | Section 6 (The Denouement) | Summary



The two ships sail together to Chile and then to Lima, Peru. Benito Cereno is hospitalized and cared for by nurses and a priest. The true story of what happened on the San Dominick is related through the testimonies of Benito Cereno and some of his sailors. The ship initially embarked from Valparaiso, Chile. A day out of port, the slaves on board revolted and killed 18 of the white sailors. Babo and Atufal were the leaders. They decided to leave Cereno alive to help them. They asked him if there were any totally black settlements in the area where they could go, and when Cereno replied that he knew of none, they demanded Cereno help them sail all the long way back to Senegal. Cereno insisted they needed enough water, at least, for that long of a trip, so they set sail for the island of St. Maria, which is uninhabited. Babo threatened to kill Cereno and the other remaining white sailors if they tried to reach an inhabited area. The ship was becalmed for a while, and some men died from thirst or exposure, while the last navigator on board was murdered.

The testimony then goes on to detail what was actually happening on board the San Dominick once it arrived into St. Maria's bay and was boarded by Captain Amasa Delano. Cereno was told to play his part with no hints to the captain about what was really going on, or Babo and Atufal would kill Cereno and the captain as well. Babo stationed the hatchet cleaners on the deck and put Atufal in chains that could be quickly removed so he would look like a prisoner. Babo stayed near Cereno the whole time, and when he drew him aside for a whispered conference, was actually making plans to commandeer Delano's ship as well. The report also confirms Captain Delano's observations that the young Spanish sailor on board, Hermenegildo Gandix, was trying to subtly warn him something was amiss.

After Cereno's deposition, Captain Amasa Delano recounts many good conversations with Cereno on their way to Lima, despite Cereno's broken spirit. Babo is hanged some months later in Lima. Benito Cereno dies three months later at a monastery.


After the climax of the story in which Captain Amasa Delano realizes what is really happening on the San Dominick and his sailors manage to capture the ship, this section is a combination of falling action and explanation. Much of this final part of the story takes place in the form of "documents" that contain a transcript of Cereno's testimony. Stylistically, this section is different from the rest of the story: it contains notes of explanation and interjections in order to give the feel of a deposition. Cereno's fragile mental state is indicated by notes stating he wandered away from his story on long tangents and strangely detailed descriptions of events during the mutiny.

Cereno provides the names of many sailors who have hitherto remained nameless and who were only glimpsed briefly through the ignorant eyes of Captain Delano. This is perhaps to indicate Cereno was a captain who knew by name everyone on board the San Dominick and perhaps truly cared for the white members of the crew. Unlike his sailors, besides the two main black characters of Babo and Atufal, Cereno refrains from using, or perhaps never learned, any of the other black people's names on board his ship.

It is important for a contemporary reader to note that neither Cereno nor Captain Delano at any point really sympathizes with the enslaved black passengers' bid for freedom. Cereno does reveal this is, indeed, what the black people on board the ship had hoped for since they had demanded to be dropped in an all-black colony somewhere or taken to Senegal. The fact that the black mutineers had no other aim but to secure their freedom from slavery may justify their actions. They were not, in fact, pirates hoping for money or goods, nor were they cruel and vicious simply for the sake of being cruel or vicious. Cereno specifically recounts that their only desire was to put ashore somewhere they would be free. This fact may make it more difficult for the modern reader to sympathize with either Cereno or Captain Delano, who seems to have no empathy for the black characters nor the ability to sympathize in the least with their desire to be free.

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