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"Benito Cereno" is a novella by Herman Melville, a fictionalized account about the revolt on a Spanish slavery ship captained by Don Benito Cereno, first published in three installments in Putnam's Monthly in 1855. The tale, slightly revised, was included in his short story collection The Piazza Tales that appeared in May 1856. According to scholar Merton M. Sealts, Jr., the story is 'an oblique comment on those prevailing attitudes toward blacks and slavery in the United States that would ultimately precipitate civil war between North and South.'[1] The famous question of what had cast such a shadow upon Cereno was used by American author Ralph Ellison as an epigraph to his 1952 novel Invisible Man, excluding Cereno's answer, "The negro." Over time, Melville's story has been "increasingly recognized as among his greatest achievements."[2]

"Benito Cereno"
Herman Melville profile.jpg
Herman Melville in 1860, five years after the writing of "Benito Cereno."
Author Herman Melville
Country United States of America
Language English
Genre(s) sea adventure
Published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, The Piazza Tales
Publication type magazine serialization, part of book
Publisher Dix & Edwards
Publication date October, November, December 1855 (serialization), May 1856 (American book), June 1856 (British book)

In 1799 off the coast of Chile, captain Amasa Delano of the American merchant ship Bachelor's Delight visits the San Dominick, a Spanish slave ship apparently in distress. After learning from its captain Benito Cereno that a storm has taken many crewmembers and provisions, Delano offers to help out. He notices that Cereno acts awkwardly passive for a captain and the slaves display remarkably inappropriate behavior, and though this piques his suspicion he ultimately decides he is being paranoid. When he leaves the San Dominick and captain Cereno jumps after him, he finally discovers that the slaves have taken command of the ship, and forced the surviving crew to act as usual. Employing a third-person narrator who reports Delano's point of view without any correction, the story has become a famous example of unreliable narration.

Much critical study has gone into the story's relation to the Toussaint Louverture-led slave rebellion of the 1790s in Saint-Domingue, as well as to Melville's use of one chapter from the historical Amasa Delano's Voyages of 1817, a source of such importance that "he must have written 'Benito Cereno' with Chapter 18 constantly open before him."[3] The novella's "unreliable, even deceptive, narration" continues to cause misunderstanding.[4] Many reviewers of The Piazza Tales cited the novella as one of the highlights in the collection. Melville biographer Hershel Parker calls it "an intensely controlled work, formally one of the most nearly perfect things Melville ever did."[5]


Plot summaryEdit

Amasa Delano's portrait. Frontispice from his A Narrative of Voyages, 1817.

Off the coast of Chile on one gray day in 1799, the sky filled with shadows "foreshadowing deeper shadows to come", captain Amasa Delano of the Bachelor's Delight, a Massachusetts sealer and trading ship, sees the Spanish vessel San Dominick in seeming distress. With some supplies he steps in his boat "The Rover" and boards the San Dominick, which carries a cargo of slaves, including women and children. He notes the figurehead, which is mostly concealed by a tarpaulin revealing only the inscription: "Follow your leaders", and the fate of the slaves' master, Alexandro Aranda, who Cereno claims took fever aboard the ship and died. He sends his men back to bring more food and water, and stays aboard in the company of its Spanish captain, Don Benito Cereno and his Senegalese servant Babo who never leaves him alone. Don Benito’s timidness and the wild behavior of the slaves confuse Delano. The San Dominick, Cereno informs him, is on a voyage from Buenos Aires to Lima with three hundred slaves and a crew of fifty Spaniards, but storms and diseases have decimated the crew. Cereno is constantly attended to by his personal slave, Babo, whom Cereno keeps in close company even when Delano suggests that Babo leave the two in private to discuss matters that are clearly being avoided. Delano, however, does not bother Cereno to ask questions about the odd superficiality of their conversation Delano, who appreciates Babo’s faithful care for his master, offers to help out by letting three of his own men assist in bringing the ship to Concepcion.

What disturbs Delano are incidents he observes among the hatchet polishers, oakum pickers, such as when a black boy stabs a white one. Apparently Cereno does not care about this behavior, not even when Atufal, a regal-looking slave appears in chains but still refusing to humble himself. The whispering between Cereno and Babo makes Delano feel uncomfortable. Gradually his suspicions increase, as he notes Cereno's sudden waves of dizziness and anxiety, the crew's awkward movements and whisperings, and the unusual interaction of the slaves and the whites. Yet Delano answers Cereno’s questions about the crew, cargo, and arms aboard the Bachelor’s Delight without reserve, reasoning that the innocent are protected by the truth. When The Rover arrives with the supplies, Delano sends her back for more water while he continues to observe curious incidents.

Babo reminds Cereno that it’s time for his shave. "Most negroes are natural valets and hairdressers; taking to the comb and brush congenially as to the castinets, and flourishing them apparently with equal satisfaction", springing from "the docility arising from the unaspiring contentment of a limited mind". Babo suggests that Delano joins them in the cuddy to continue the conversation with Cereno, and Delano witnesses the shaving with an appreciative eye for Babo’s graceful skill as a barber and a hairdresser. Babo first searches "for the sharpest" razor, and Cereno "nervously shuddered" at the "sight of gleaming steel". Delano himself, for a brief moment, cannot resist "the vagary, that in the black he saw a headsman, and in the white, a man at the block." Cereno is nervously shaking, and just when Delano curiously asks him how he could have spent over two months crossing a distance Delano himself would have sailed within a few days, then, whether caused by a sudden wave on the sea, or "a momentary unsteadiness of the servant’s hand; however it was, just then the razor drew blood", and immediately "the black barber drew back his steel". Delano precedes the two out of the cuddy and walks to the mainmast, where Babo joins him, complaining that Cereno cut his cheek in reproach for his carelessness, while Cereno’s own shaking caused the cut. Delano feels that slavery fosters ugly passions, and invites Cereno for coffee aboard the Bachelor’s Delight, which Cereno declines, offending Delano, who is also increasingly irritated by the lack of opportunity to have a private conversation without Babo within hearing distance.

When the American steps into The Rover and takes off, "Don Benito sprang over the bulwarks, falling at the feet of Captain Delano". Three Spanish sailors dive after him, just as Babo, "dagger in his hand", and a dark avalanche of slaves. Delano fears Babo wants to attack him, but the black loses the dagger when he falls into the boat. With a second dagger Babo continues his attack and now his purpose is revealed: "Not Captain Delano, but Don Benito, the black, leaping into the boat, had intended to stab." Delano’s men prevent him from achieving his purpose. Delano, "now with the scales dropped from his eyes", realizes that a slave revolt has been going on aboard the San Dominick. He sees the remaining sailors taking flight into the masts to escape the "flourishing hatchets and knives" of the blacks who are after them. The canvas falls off the ship's figurehead, revealing the strung-up skeleton of Alexandro Aranda. Delano secures Babo, and his men under command of his chief mate attack the Spanish ship to claim booty by defeating the revolting slaves.

Eventually, legal depositions taken at Lima explain the matter. Instead of storm and epidemics, a bloody slave revolt under Babo’s command caused the mortalities among the crew, including Aranda. When Delano approached, the freed slaves set up the delusion that the surviving whites were still in charge. Delano asks the sad Benito: "’you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?’" To which Cereno replies: "’The negro.’"

Some months after the trial Babo is executed, never saying a word to defend himself: his body was burned but his head, "fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites", and looked in the direction of St. Bartholomew’s church, where "the recovered bones of Aranda" lay, and further across the bridge "towards the monastery on Mount Agonia without: where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader."


In the 1850s, biographer Delbanco writes, the revolt on a slave ship was not a far-fetched topic for a literary work. In 1839, the Spanish schooner La Amistad with fifty slaves became the site of slave revolt between two Cuban ports, and two crew members were killed. An American naval vessel seized the Amistad when the ship had wandered off course near Long Island. Then followed a legal battle which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams succeeded in setting the slaves free in the 1841 U.S. Supreme Court ruling United States v. The Amistad. In 1841 the American Creole moved slaves from Virginia to New Orleans when nineteen slaves killed a white sailor and took command of the ship, which then set sail to the British Bahamas. In the Creole case, the slaves were set free under the 1833 British Act of Emancipation. Madison Washington, the leader of the revolt, became the hero of a novel a decade later, in March 1853, when Frederick Douglass published the short novel The Heroic Slave in his anti-slavery newspaper North Star.[6]


Melville's major source for the novella was the 1817 memoir of the real Captain Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands.[7] Delano recounts how on February 20, 1805, in a deserted bay at the island of Santa Maria, his vessel Perseverance encountered the Spanish slave ship Tryal, whose slaves had overthrown the Spanish sailors.

We pulled as fast as we could on board; and then despatched the boat for the man who was left in the water, whom we succeeded to save alive. We soon had our guns ready; but the Spanish ship had dropped so far astern of the Perseverance, that we could bring but one gun to bear on her, which was the after one. This was fired six times, without any other effect than cutting away the fore top-mast stay, and some other small ropes which were no hindrance to her going away. She was soon out of reach of our shot, steering out of the bay. We then had some other calculations to make.
—Amasa Delano, A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, 1817, Chapter 18, 325.[8]
The boat was immediately dispatched back to pick up the three swimming sailors. Meantime, the guns were in readiness, though, owing to the San Dominick having glided somewhat astern of the sealer, only the aftermost could be brought to bear. With this, they fired six times; thinking to cripple the fugitive ship by bringing down her spars. But only a few inconsiderable ropes were shot away. Soon the ship was beyond the gun's range, steering broad out of the bay; the blacks thickly clustering round the bowsprit, one moment with taunting cries towards the whites, the next with upthrown gestures hailing the now dusky moors of ocean--cawing crows escaped from the hand of the fowler.
— Melville's "Benito Cereno".[9]

The discoverer of the source, Harold H. Scudder, writes that Melville "found his story ready made. He merely rewrote this Chapter including a portion of the legal documents there appended, suppressing a few items, and making some small additions."[10] Melville made three major alterations, besides changing the date to 1799. First, while Delano does not describe the Spanish ship, Melville provides an elaborate description full of shabby and sinister details. Second, Melville replaces the names Perseverance and Tryal by names of his own literary invention, Bachelor's Delight and San Dominick,[note 1] respectively. Third, while the real Delano was accompanied by his midshipman Luther, Melville's Delano visits the Spanish ship alone.[11] Melville introduces incidents of his own invention, chief among them the shaving of Don Benito, the giant Atufal in chains, and the lunch aboard the Spanish ship. Though the names of the captains remain unchanged, Melville changes the name of the confidential servant from Muri to Babo. Other additions are the two slaves attacking the Spanish seaman, the glimpse of the jewel, and the sailor presenting the Gordian knot. Melville elaborates the ending of Cereno's leap into Delano's boat by Babo's attempt to stab Cereno and the revelation of the skeleton-shaped figurehead. Final inventions are Cereno's deposition at the beginning and his death in a monastery.[12]

Scholar Rosalie Feltenstein finds it "far from accurate" to say that he found his story ready-made in his source,[13] a statement not just contradicted by Scudder's own inventory of alterations, but instead of suppressing only "a few items," Melville in fact "omits the whole second half of the narrative."[14] Melville meant to both elevate the Cereno character, making him "as heartless and savage as the slaves," and to turn Babo into "a manifestation of pure evil." For instance, in the source Cereno himself tries to stab one of the slaves with a hidden dirk: "Transferred entirely to Babo, this action provides the crisis of the story and adds a final touch to the portrait of the slave's malignity."[15] Some of the "apparently trifling alterations" of his source can be explained by the artistic purpose of establishing a web of imagery pertaing to monks and monasteries.[16]

Andrew Delbanco points out Melville's elaboration of the episode in which Delano is struck by the scarcity of whites aboard when he first enters the San Dominick. The real Delano describes this in one phrase ("captain, mate, people and slaves, crowded around me to relate their stories"), but Melville expands the scene to one full paragraph.[17]

According to Melville scholar Harrison Hayford, "the island of Santa Maria is relocated from the coast of central Chile near Concepcion to 'down towards its southern extremity,'...the time span lengthened considerably, the legal deposition abridged and altered, the number of blacks multiplied, and names and roles are switched." One such switch is the replacement of Muri's name by his father's, Babo.[18] Melville's Babo is a blend of the central roles that Babo and his father Muri play in the source.[19] In their reproduction of Amasa Delano's chapter, the editors of the 1987 edition supply marginal page and line numbers indicating parallel passages in Melville's novella.[20] (Compare quoteboxes to see one example of such parallels.)

Biographer Parker concludes the legal documents section is roughly half Melville's own invention fused with slightly adapted documents copied from Delano. Melville's additions include cannibalism and the image of Columbus. Generally, his inventions are "not distinguishable without collation of the real depositions against Melville's deposition, for the Delano chapter provided dazzlingly evocative material to work from."[21]

Historian Sterling Stuckey finds it unjust to restrict attention to chapter 18, because Melville used elements from other chapters as well.[22] He also names sources for the presence of Ashantee culture in the novella.[23]

The narrative of events in the novel closely follows the actual event.[24][25]

Writing styleEdit

Point of viewEdit

The novella is told by an unreliable narrator, in M.H. Abrams's definition "one whose perception, interpretation, and evaluation of the matters he or she narrates do not coincide with the opinions and norms implied by the author, which the author expects the reader to share."[26] The crucial information that the slaves have murdered all the senior Spanish seamen except the captain Benito Cereno is withheld from the reader. The Spanish sailors, and specifically Cereno, are forced to play along in a theatrical performance for the benefit of the American Amasa Delano who initially approaches the dilapidated Spanish ship to offer his assistance. Though written in the third person, the narrative emerges largely through the point of view of Delano throughout the first and longest part of the narrative and therefore remains limited to what Delano sees (or thinks he sees). Biographer Delbanco describes the reader's experience of this perspective as if he witnesses the scene over Delano's shoulder and hears the crowd as through his ears.[27]

Melville scholar John Bryant believes that no first-person narrator was used because that would make the suspense hard to sustain, as first-person narrators "too easily announce their limitations."[28] During his visit aboard the slave carrier, biographer Parker observes, Delano "repeats a pattern of suspicions-followed-by-reassurance, with progressively shorter periods in which suspicions can be allayed."[29]

For this story, he "adopts the voice of an omniscient and supposedly objective speaker, but limits his reporting almost exclusively to Delano's skewed point of view."[30] The narrator only reports what Delano sees and thinks, "makes no judgments and relates Delano's fatally racist presumptions as fact."[31] Parker describes Melville's Delano as "bluffly good-natured, practical, and resourceful but intellectually obtuse, naively optimistic, impervious to evil."[32] Melville's narrator deceives the white readership of Putnam's Monthly "into adopting Delano's erroneous thinking." The denouement is no less shocking to the reader than it is to Delano himself, "and the story's final effect is to force readers to retrace their own racism to discover how, as a condition of mind, it distorts our vision."[33]

Biographer Laurie Robertson-Lorant sees a parallel between Delano's viewpoint and the reader's position: "Babo has woven an elaborate web of deception from the American's own prejudices," and "Melville has drawn readers who adopt Delano's view of the San Dominick into the same entangling web."[34]

Andrew Delbanco observes the subtlety of Melville's handling of perspective in the description of Delano's entrance aboard the San Dominick. The omniscient narrator, still present when the human cargo surrounds Delano and tells him of their woe ("all poured out a common tale") gives way to indirect discourse ("The scurvy...had swept...number...") from the slaves, and thus "moves us so close to Delano's perspective that we witness the scene as if over his shoulder and hear the 'clamorous' crowd as if through his ears."[35]

Prose rhythm: tension vs. relief, narrative style versus legal documentsEdit

Several critics notice the fundamental rhythm of the story, a rhythm of tension and relief simultaneously characteristic of the sentences, the state of mind of Captain Delano (the center of consciousness of the tale), and even of the structure of the novella as a whole.

Every now and then, Delbanco notices, something unusual occurs, a hissing whisper or a silent hand signal, that "might cut through Delano's haze and awaken him to the true situation, but he always reverts to 'tranquillizing' thoughts" about the white man's power and the black man's "natural servility". Unconsciously, Delano lets himself be distracted from pursuing his apprehensions.[36] Delbanco concludes his description of the shaving scene (see below) with an assessment of what he sees as the purpose of the rhythm: "This pattern of tension followed by release gives Benito Cereno its teasing rhythm of flow-and-ebb, which, since the release is never complete, has the incremental effect of building pressure toward the bursting point."[37]

The prolonged riddle of the main story is solved with the leap of Don Benito in Delano's boat—an ending of just a page and a half. The events just related are told a second time, now in "the cumbersome style of a judicial exposition" for which the documents in the source provided the model. For Berthoff, the presence of these documents represent "only the most abrupt of a series of shifts and starts in the presentation" that constitute the narrative rhythm of "tension increasing and diminishing" and of "the nervous succession of antithetical feelings and intuitions."[38] Berthoff recognizes the sentences perform the double function of simultaneously showing and suspending: "they must communicate tension but also damp it down."[39] Though the paragraphs are usually short, the longer ones contain what for Berthoff is the essential rhythm of the tale:

As his foot pressed the half-damp, half-dry seamosses matting the place, and a chance phantom cats-paw--an islet of breeze, unheralded, unfollowed--as this ghostly cats-paw came fanning his cheek; as his glance fell upon the row of small, round dead-lights--all closed like coppered eyes of the coffined--and the state-cabin door, once connecting with the gallery, even as the dead-:lights had once looked out upon it, but now calked fast like a sarcophagus lid; and to a purple-black, tarred-over panel, threshold, and post; and he bethought him of the time, when that state-cabin and this state-balcony had heard the voices of the Spanish king's officers, and the forms of the Lima viceroy's daughters had perhaps learned where he stood--as these and other images flitted through his mind, as the cats-paw through the calm, gradually he felt rising a dreamy inquietude, like that of one who alone on the prairie feels unrest from the repose of the moon.[40]

Besides the role of Melville's descriptive powers in carrying the suspension in this sentence, "the rhythm of sensation and response it reproduces" is in "in miniature" the rhythm of both the action and the telling.[41]

After the presentation of the legal documents, the novella concludes in a style of "spare, rapid, matter-of-fact statement into longer paragraphs and a more sustained and concentrated emphasis:"

As for the black--whose brain, not body, had schemed and led the revolt, with the plot--his slight frame, inadequate tothat which it held, had at once yielded to the superior muscular strength of his captor, in the boat. Seeing all was over, he uttered no sound, and could not be forced to. His aspect seemed to say, since I cannot do deeds, I will not speak words. Put in irons in the hold, he was carried to Lima. During the passage, Don Benito did not visit him. Nor then, nor at any time after, would he look at him. Before the tribunal he refused. When pressed by the judges, he fainted. On the testimony of the sailors alone rested the legal identity of Babo.
Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites; and across the Plaza looked towards St. Bartholomew's church, in whose vaults slept then, as now, the recovered bones of Aranda: and across the Rimac bridge looked towards the monastery, on Mount Agonia without; where, three months after being dismissed by the court, Benito Cereno, borne on the bier, did, indeed, follow his leader.[42]

These last paragraphs introduce a new tone, after the "teasing oscillations of mood" in the first part and the "dry repetitions of the court documents," the novella's conclusion is "terse, rapid, taut with detail," and for Berthoff an admirable example of "Melville's ordinary boldness in fitting his performance to the whole developing occasion."[43]


As Rosalie Feltenstein first noticed, the Spanish ship and its crew are described continuously in "similes drawn from monastic life." At first sighting, the ship is likened to a "white-washed monastery after a thunderstorm." Delano first mistakes the crew for monks, "Black Friars pacing the cloisters." Ironically, the ragged Babo looked "something like a begging friar of Saint Francis." Even the name of the ship, San Dominick,[note 2] is relevant here, the Dominicans being known as "the Black Friars." The name of the ship is not only appropriate for the African slaves, but also "hints of the blackness with which the story is filled."[44]

Themes and motifsEdit

Slavery and racismEdit

Because of its ambiguity, the novella has been read by some as racist and pro-slavery and by others as anti-racist and abolitionist.[45] However, by the mid-20th century, at least some critics read Benito Cereno as a tale that primarily explores human depravity and does not reflect upon race at all. Feltenstein sees "a trace of nineteenth-century satanism in Babo,"[46] and asserts that "Slavery is not the issue here; the focus is upon evil in action in a certain situation."[47]

Later critics regard Melville's alteration of the year of events from 1805 to 1799, the Christopher Columbus motif, and the name of the San Dominick as allusions to the French colony then known as Saint-Domingue, called Santo Domingo in Spanish, one of the first landing places of Columbus. In the 1790s a slave revolt took place there under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture, which led to the first free black republic in the Americas. According to scholar Hester Blum, the voyages of Columbus, "who initiated New World colonization and slavery," form the "negative inspiration" of Babo's revolt.[48] Columbus's importance for the novella is signalled repeatedly, most dramatically by the "follow your leader"-sign under the figurehead: as revealed in the legal documents, Columbus's was the original figurehead who had been replaced by the skeleton.[49]

Robertson-Laurent finds that "Melville indicts slavery without sentimentalizing either the blacks or the whites." Any apparently kind behavior toward the slaves is deceptive by nature: not only does such conduct not change the fact that the captain considers the slaves his property, but it also rests on the motif that it is a "purely self-serving" financial interest of the captain to treat his peculiar "cargo" well. The Americans display no better moral when they board the ship at the end of the story: it is not kindness that refrains them from killing the Africans, but their plan to claim the "cargo" for themselves.[50] In addition to this principal state of affairs, "freedom within the confines of a slave ship did not protect the women against rape and sexual abuse," and in fact allowing the women to walk on the deck "made them more accessible to the lustful crew."[51] Delano's impression of the female slaves is part of his overall misperception: "After Aranda's death, the women, whom Delano imagines to be as docile and sweet as does with their fawns, shave Aranda's bones clean with their hatchets, then hang his skeleton over the carved figurehead of Cristobal Colón as a warning to the surviving Spaniards."[52]

Since the 1940s, criticism has moved to reading Babo as the heroic leader of a slave rebellion whose tragic failure does not diminish the genius of the rebels. In an inversion of contemporary racial stereotypes, Babo is portrayed as a physically weak man of great intellect, his head (impaled on a spike at the end of the story) a "hive of subtlety".[53]

Author Toni Morrison regards the "willful blindness" of Delano as a strategy "that absolves him of all responsibility. It is similar to the 'happy, loyal slave' antebellum discourse that peppered early debates on black civil rights."[54]

The nature of perceptionEdit

Bryant observes an epistemological dimension to the story, as Delano admires the black race not for its humanity but for its perceived servility, which prejudiced view renders Delano unable to see any ability to revolt, and thus unable to understand the state of affairs on the slave ship. The issue is "not his lack of intelligence, but the shape of his mind, which can process reality only through the sieve of a culturally conditioned benevolent racism," and Delano is eventually "conned by his most cherished stereotypes."[55] Berthoff sees a contrast between Delano and Don Benito's "awareness," caused by the "harrowingly different circumstances" through which they come to meet each other.[56] Seeing no essential difference between Delano's consciousness and the more or less blind way of life of every human being, he sees the story "as composing a paradigm of the secret ambiguity of appearances--an old theme with Melville--and, more particularly, a paradigm of the inward life of ordinary consciousness, with all its mysterious shifts, penetrations, and side-slippings, in a world in which this ambiguity of appearances is the baffling norm."[57]

Delbanco observes that Delano's psychology switches between tension and fear. Each time some anomaly occurs, such as the slave who stands unbowed before a white man trembling with fear, Delano contemplates the matter deeply, and always thinks up a reason for feeling relieved.[58]

The shaving sceneEdit

The scene of Babo's shaving of Don Benito is, in Delbanco's words, "a meditation on subjectivity itself." Captain Delano enjoys the sight of Babo performing the kind of personal service to his master Delano thinks blacks are especially well suited for, manicuring, hair-dressing, and barbering.[note 3] Don Benito, on the other hand, shakes with fear. Apparently, Babo tests the blade across his palm, and for Delano the sound is that of a man humbling himself, while Cereno hears "the black man warning him: if you make one move toward candor, I will cut your throat." When Delano notices that the shaving cloth covering Don Benito is the Spanish flag, he finds this use an indignity that for a moment gives him occasion to see in Babo a "headsman" and in Don Benito "a man at the block", but quickly reassures himself that blacks are like children and therefore fond of bright colors, so that nothing is wrong with scene. In Delbanco's estimation, "Delano's capacity for self-deception is limitless."[59]

Babo then draws a spot of blood from Don Benito with a flick of his razor, an accident he calls "Babo's first blood" and blames on Don Benito's shaking. He then concludes Don Benito's toilette with a comb, as if to put on a show for Delano. Then, just when Delano has preceded the other two out of the cabin, Babo cuts himself in the cheek. On deck, he shows Delano the bleeding and explains that this is Don Benito's punishment for the accident. Delano is momentarily shocked by this Spanish cruelty, but when he sees Babo and Don Benito reconciled he is relieved to notice that the outrage has passed.[60]

Transatlantic contrastsEdit

One other strain in criticism is to read in the story an almost Jamesian moral with Delano as the American who, "confronted with evil in unescapable form, wanted only to turn over a new leaf, to deny and to forget the lesson he ought to have learned."[61] Such an American survives "by being less than fully human," while Europeans are "broken by the weight of their knowledge of and complicity in human evil."[62] Literary historian Richard Gray calls the novella an interrogation of "the American optimism of its narrator [sic] and the European pessimism of its protagonist, Cereno, under the shadow of slavery."[63] Delano represents a version of New England innocence which has also been read as strategy to ensure colonial power over both Spain and Africans in the "New World".[64]

Publication historyEdit

The novella was first serialized anonymously in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in three installments, October, November, and December 1855,[65][note 4] around the same time that DeBow's Review, a "virulently pro-slavery" magazine, denounced Putnam's as "the leading review of the Black Republican party," because the periodical was becoming "increasingly belligerent on the slavery issue."[66] The October issue with the first installment also carried a piece on "the suicide of slavery," referring to the possible destruction of the republic. Thus, the novella appeared in a "partisan magazine committed to the anti-slavery cause."[67]

On October 9, Evening Post correspondent "Pictor" revealed the source for the story, and inferred how it would end. In response, Melville wrote a note to acknowledge his source in the book publication which eventually was omitted.[68]

No record of payment for the novella survives,[69] but apparently the magazine's new owners continued to pay Melville at the rate of $5.00 per page.[70] Putnam's editorial advisor George William Curtis finished reading the novella as early as April, and recommended its acceptance to Joshua Dix, because it was "very striking & well done" on the whole, though he took "the dreary documents at the end" for a sign that Melville "does everything too hurriedly now."[71] Despite Curtis's pressing to use it in the September issue--"You have paid for it," he wrote on 31 July—serializing began six months after he first voiced his approval.[72]

It was included in The Piazza Tales, published by Dix & Edwards in May 1856 in the United States; in June the British edition appeared.[73]

In 1926 the novella became the first separate edition of any of his short prose pieces when the Nonesuch Press published the 1856 text with illustrations by E. McKnight Kauffer.[74]


Contemporary reviewsEdit

According to scholar Johannes D. Bergmann, "Benito Cereno", "Bartleby", and "The Encantadas" were the most frequently praised by reviewers of the stories that make up The Piazza Tales.[75] Most reviews were unsigned, and not all singled out either "Benito Cereno" or any other individual story, but described the collection as a whole. On 9 July 1856, the Springfield Republican compared the collection to Hawthorne's best work, "Marked by a delicate fancy, a bright and most fruitful imagination, a pure and translucent style and a certain weirdness of conceit."[76] "The legends themselves," wrote the Athenaeum for 26 July, "have a certain wild and ghostly power; but the exaggeration of their teller's manner appears to be on the increase."[77] Also taking the stories together, the United States Democratic Review for September 1856 wrote that "All of them exhibit that peculiar richness of language, descriptive vitality, and splendidly sombre imagination which are the author's characteristics."[78]

On 4 June 1856, the New Bedford Daily Mercury found that "Benito Cereno" was "told with due gravity."[79] The New York Tribune on 23 June singled out "Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas" as stories that were "fresh specimens of Mr. Melville's sea-romances, but cannot be regarded as improvements on his former popular productions in that kind."[80] The New York Times for 27 June found "Benito Cereno" "melodramatic, not effective."[81] As if describing a detective story, the Knickerbocker for September 1856 called the piece "most painfully interesting, and in reading it we become nervously anxious for the solution of the mystery it involves."[82]

Later critical historyEdit

After the Melville Revival of the early 1920s academic study of the novella took off, with gradually increasing numbers of annual publications on the story through the decades. Reviewing scholarship and criticism up to 1970, Nathalia Wright found that most essays were "divided between a moral - metaphysical interpretation (Babo being the embodiment of evil, Delano of unperceptive good will) and a socio-political one (the slaves corresponding chiefly to those in nineteenth-century America)."[83] The second category can be further divided into three groups: critics who saw "sympathy for the slaves," a few who recognized "pro-slavery or ambivalent sentiments," and those who concentrated on "Delano as a naive American," one of whom identified "Cereno with Europe."[84]

In the years after the Second World War readers found the story "embarrassing for its presumed racist treatment of the Africans", while more recent readers, by contrast, "acknowledge Melville's naturalistic critique of racism."[85]


Poet Robert Lowell wrote a stage adaptation of Benito Cereno for The Old Glory, his trilogy of plays, in 1964. The Old Glory was initially produced off-Broadway in 1964 for the American Place Theatre. It was later revived off-Broadway in 1976. In 2011, Benito Cereno was performed in another off-Broadway production without the other two plays of the trilogy.[86]

Yusef Komunyakaa wrote a poem, "Captain Amasa Delano's Dilemma," based on Benito Cereno. The poem was first published in American Poetry Review in 1996.

Gary J. Whitehead's poem "Babo Speaks from Lima," based on Benito Cereno, was first published in Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies in 2003.[87] It was reprinted in A Glossary of Chickens (Princeton University Press, 2013).


  1. ^ And of his apparent error as well: the correct Spanish name for this Spanish vessel would have been "'Santo Domingo'" (Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle 1987, 583).
  2. ^ Feltenstein's (1947, 249) claim that the name of Delano's own ship, Bachelor's Delight, is a combination of the name of two ships met by the Pequod in Moby-Dick, seems founded upon pure coincidence: the name was "borrowed from the ship navigated by William Cowley" (Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle 1987, 584).
  3. ^ As Melville's contemporary audience would have recognized, "these were, in fact, among the few trades open to free blacks in antebellum America" (Delbanco 2005, 237).
  4. ^ These three issues of Putnam's can be seen and read at the "Making of America" site at Cornell University, see the "External links" at the bottom of this page.


  1. ^ Sealts (1988), 94
  2. ^ Delbanco (2005), 230
  3. ^ Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle (1987), 582
  4. ^ Bergmann (1986), 265
  5. ^ Parker (2002), 242
  6. ^ Delbanco (2005), 232-33
  7. ^ Scudder (1928), 503
  8. ^ Reprinted in Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle (1987), 819
  9. ^ Melville (1987), 100
  10. ^ Scudder (1928), 502
  11. ^ Scudder (1928), 530
  12. ^ Scudder (1928), 531
  13. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 246
  14. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 247
  15. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 247
  16. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 249
  17. ^ Delbanco (2005), 233-34
  18. ^ Hayford (1984), 1457
  19. ^ Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle (1987), 588
  20. ^ Hayford, MacDougall, and Tanselle (1987), 809.
  21. ^ Parker (2002), 240
  22. ^ Stuckey (2009), 12
  23. ^ Stuckey (2009), 14
  24. ^ Corrigan, Maureen (January 27, 2014). "Book Review:On This Spanish Slave Ship, Nothing Was As It Seemed". NPR. Retrieved January 27, 2014. 
  25. ^ Grandin, Greg (January 27, 2014). "Noam Chomsky is right: It's the so-called serious who devastate the planet and cause the wars". Salon. 
  26. ^ Abrams (1999), 235
  27. ^ Delbanco (2005), 234
  28. ^ Bryant (2001), xxxii
  29. ^ Parker (2002), 239
  30. ^ Bryant (2001), xxxii
  31. ^ Bryant (2001), xxxii-xxxiii
  32. ^ Parker (2002), 238
  33. ^ Bryant (2001), xxxiii
  34. ^ Robertson-Lorant (1996), 349
  35. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 234
  36. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 235.
  37. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 239
  38. ^ Berthoff (1962), 154-55
  39. ^ Berthoff (1962), 171
  40. ^ Quoted in Berthoff (1962), 171-72.
  41. ^ Berthoff (1962), 172
  42. ^ Quoted in Berthoff (1962), 155-56
  43. ^ Berthoff (1962), 156
  44. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 248-49
  45. ^ Newman (1986).
  46. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 253
  47. ^ Feltenstein (1947), 254
  48. ^ Blum (2006), 120
  49. ^ Blum (2006), 121
  50. ^ Robertson-Lorant (1996), 350
  51. ^ Robertson-Lorant (1996), 350
  52. ^ Robertson-Lorant (1996), 350
  53. ^ McCall (2002), 102
  54. ^ Morrison (2014)
  55. ^ Bryant (2001), xxxii
  56. ^ Berthoff (1962), 152
  57. ^ Berthoff (1962), 153
  58. ^ Delbanco (2005), p. 235
  59. ^ Delbanco (2005), 238
  60. ^ Delbanco (2005), 238-39
  61. ^ Parker (2002), 241
  62. ^ Parker (2002), 241
  63. ^ Gray (2004), 213
  64. ^ cf. Sundquist (1993)
  65. ^ Hayford et al. (1987), 580
  66. ^ Delbanco (2005), 230
  67. ^ Delbanco (2005), 230
  68. ^ Parker (2002), 272
  69. ^ Sealts (1987), 493-94
  70. ^ Sealts (1987), 495
  71. ^ Quoted in Sealts (1987), 495
  72. ^ Sealts (1987), 495
  73. ^ Sealts (1987), 497
  74. ^ Sealts (1987), 511
  75. ^ Bergmann (1986), 247
  76. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 358
  77. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 359
  78. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 360
  79. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 355
  80. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 357
  81. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 356. Reviewer's italics.
  82. ^ Reprinted in Branch (1974), 359
  83. ^ Wright (1972), 211
  84. ^ Wright (1972), 211-12
  85. ^ Bryant (2001), 581
  86. ^ Revival Article in Playbill
  87. ^ Whitehead, Gary J. (October 2003). "Babo Speaks from Lima". Leviathan. 5 (2): 86–87. doi:10.1111/j.1750-1849.2003.tb00081.x. Retrieved 2013-09-15. 

Works citedEdit

  • Abrams, M.H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms. Seventh Edition, Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers. ISBN 0-15-505452-X
  • Bergmann, Johannes D. (1986). "Melville's Tales." A Companion to Melville Studies. Edited by John Bryant. New York, Westport, Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-23874-X
  • Berthoff, Warner (1962). The Example of Melville. Reprinted 1972, New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Blum, Hester (2006). "Atlantic Trade." A Companion to Herman Melville. Edited by Wyn Kelley. Wiley/Blackwell.
  • Bryant, John (2001). "Herman Melville: A Writer in Process" and "Notes." Herman Melville, Tales, Poems, and Other Writings. Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by John Bryant. New York: The Modern Library. ISBN 0-679-64105-X
  • Delano, Amasa (1817). A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: Comprising Three Voyages Round the World; Together with a Voyage of Survey and Discovery, in the Pacific Ocean and Oriental Islands. Chapter 18. Boston: Printed by E.G. House, for the author. Reprinted in Melville 1987.
  • Delbanco, Andrew (2005). Melville: His World and Work. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40314-0
  • Feltenstein, Rosalie (1947). "Melville's 'Benito Cereno.'" American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 19.3, 245-55.
  • Grandin, Greg (2014). "Obama, Melville and the Tea Party." New York Times online, Sunday, January 18, 2014. [1]
  • Gray, Richard (2004). A History of American Literature. Malden MA, Oxford UK, and Victoria, Australia: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-631-22134-0
  • Hayford, Harrison (1984). "Notes." Herman Melville, Pierre. Israel Potter. The Piazza Tales. The Confidence-Man. Billy Budd, Sailor. Edited by G. Thomas Tanselle. New York: The Library of America.
  • Hayford, Harrison, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle (1987). "Notes on Individual Prose Pieces." In Melville 1987.
  • McCall, Dan (ed.) (2002). Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. New York, NY: Norton, 2002.
  • Melville, Herman (1987). The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces 1839-1860. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. The Writings of Herman Melville Volume Nine. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library 1987. ISBN 0-8101-0550-0
  • Morrison, Toni (2014). "Melville & the Language of Denial." The Nation, 27 January 2014.
  • Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar (1986). "Benito Cereno." A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. A Reference Publication in Literature. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall.
  • Parker, Hershel (2002). Herman Melville: A Biography. Volume 2, 1851-1891. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0-8018-6892-0
  • Robertson-Lorant, Laurie (1996). Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers. ISBN 0-517-59314-9
  • Sale, Maggie Montesinos (1997). The Slumbering Volcano: American Slave Ship Revolts and the Production of Rebellious Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Scudder, Harold H. (1928). "Melville's Benito Cereno and Captain Delano's Voyages." PMLA 43, June 1928, 502-32.
  • Sealts, Merton M., Jr. (1987). "Historical Note." In Melville 1987.
  • --- (1988). Melville's Reading. Revised and Enlarged Edition. University of South Carolina Press. ISBN 0-87249-515-9
  • Stuckey, Sterling (1998). "The Tambourine in Glory: African Culture and Melville's Art." The Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville. Ed. Robert S. Levine. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge, UK & New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • --- (2009). African Culture and Melville's Art. The Creative Process in Benito Cereno and Moby-Dick. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. ISBN 9780195372700
  • Sundquist, Eric J. (1993) To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Wright, Nathalia (1972). "Herman Melville." Eight American Authors: A Review of Research and Criticism. Edited by James Woodress. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. ISBN 0-393-00651-4

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit

  • ':Benito Cereno':. The full text of the version published in The Piazza Tales (1856), which is the version that is usually anthologized.
  •   Benito Cereno public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • Putnam's Monthly at the "Making of America" site of Cornell University, a site that has digital images of many significant nineteenth century books and periodicals. Benito Cereno was serialized in the October, November and December issues of 1855.
  • Perspectives in American Literature, Chapter 3: Early Nineteenth Century: Herman Melville (1819–1891), Benito Cereno. Additional references for Benito Cereno.The site also contains other useful links relating to Herman Melville and American literature.
  • New York Times editorial comparing the situations presented in the novella to reactions to the presidency of Barack Obama