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“BENITO CERENO”

“BENITO CERENO” (1856). “Benito Cereno” is a long story by Herman Melville* (1819–1891) that was first published in three parts in Putnam’s Magazine (1855) and then included in The Piazza Tales (1856). It
is based on the true-life experiences of Captain Amasa Delano* of Duxbury,
Massachusetts, which Delano had recounted in A Narrative of Voyages and
Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville retained
the historical characters’ names but added his characteristic mixture of irony
and mystery to the account of a slave rebellion aboard a ship traveling off
the coast of South America. He concludes his story with excerpts from the
legal deposition of Don Benito Cereno, which add chilling insight to his
fiction.
Melville’s story is set in the year 1799. At a small island on the southern
coast of Chile, Captain Delano observes the San Dominick, badly in need
of repairs, approach the harbor. He boards the vessel in an attempt to find
out what has happened and to offer aid. The San Dominick’s captain, Benito
Cereno, a strangely subdued and nervous young man, supplies him with a
singular account. Cereno had started out from Buenos Aires bound for Lima
in the company of his slave-owner friend, numerous other crewmen, and
his friend’s group of slaves. Strange calms and fevers had reduced the crew
to only a few, although the slaves had not fared as badly. During the course
of the day, Captain Delano notices with suspicion the strange behavior of
many of the slaves, particularly Cereno’s personal slave, Babo, and the unsettled and melancholy behavior of Cereno himself. These mysterious signs
prompt Delano to suspect that Cereno and his slaves are plotting against
the Americans. Not until Delano disembarks to return to his own ship,
however, does he learn anything of the truth: that the slaves have gained
control of the ship. Cereno unexpectedly leaps from his own ship into Captain Delano’s boat, and the slaves attempt to escape in the San Dominick
but are captured by Delano’s men. During the course of the ensuing voyage
to Concepcio ´n, Delano learns that Cereno’s friends, including the slaves’
master, Don Alexandro Aranda, had been killed by the slaves in a mutiny,
and the remaining men were forced to attempt to sail the ship to Senegal.
Cereno dies in a monastery in Lima after the mutineers, including ringleader
Babo, are executed.
The story makes a penetrating statement on racial and political conditions
of the time, prophetically figuring the institution of slavery as a masquerade
threatening to break out of control. More than a century later, poet Robert
Lowell,* recognizing the story’s rich potential for social commentary,
adapted “Benito Cereno” into drama as part of his trilogy of plays The Old
Glory (1964), which also makes use of stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.*
Lowell reset Melville’s story in the year 1800, cast it in free verse, and used
it as a medium for discussion of such current events as the Vietnam War
and the civil rights struggle. The production of Lowell’s play won five Obie
Awards.