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Free Study Guide-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

FIRST HALF OF NARRATIVE

Summary

In 1799, Captain Amasa Delano's ship, The Bachelor's Delight, was anchored in the small bay of St. Maria, a desert island off the southernmost point of Chile. The captain had come into port to obtain drinking water for his continued travels. On the second day of his stay, he spies another ship approaching the harbor; he notices that it has no flag flying, a situation that would have alarmed most sea captains, but Delano is a calm person who is not easily excited. Although the approaching ship is partially shrouded by fog, Delano can tell that it is wandering aimlessly, first seeming to touch land and then moving away with the breeze. Because of the ship's strange movement, he decides that it must be in distress. He gives orders to lower one of his whale-boats so he can go and look into the situation. He loads some freshly caught fish to take as a present.

As Delano, in the whale-boat, approaches the second ship, he notices its odd appearance. It is a Spanish galleon, a first-class merchant ship in the grand old style; but it is clear that the ship is in terrible shape and in need of much repair. The stern displayed a worn, but intricately carved, medallion of two masked figures, a satyr with his foot on the neck of a writhing figure. The name of the ship, San Dominick, is largely washed away and barely legible. The bow is shrouded, but still reveals the Latin words for "follow your leader." As Delano surveys the mysterious ship, he notices robed figures roaming the deck. He is also relieved to notice that there are no visible guns. The image of the ship and its crew reminds him of a white-washed monastery with robed monks.


As Captain Delano boards the ship, a horde of men, both white and black, clamor towards him to tell the story of what has happened to the San Dominick. First, many of the passengers and crew were ill with scurvy and fever; many died. Next, they encountered a terrible storm off of Cape Horn. Then there had been days of calm water, forcing them to stay in one place for weeks. As a result, they have no water and little food and supplies on board.

Captain Delano thinks there is something strange about the ship and the crew; but he reasons with himself that it is always an odd experience to enter a foreign vessel; the interior always seems hidden and odd, and the customs seem very strange. Delano notices four elderly black Africans, oakum pickers, sitting at strategic points on the rails and decks; they watch the deck and occasionally address individuals in the throng. Then on the elevated poop-deck, above the throng, he sees six other blacks, each polishing a heap of hatchets; although they never speak to him, he can hear the clash of their hatchets and their occasional shouting.

Captain Delano asks for the captain of the ship and is directed to a young, tall man resting against the main-mast nearby. Although his clothes are in poor repair, they are richly made. As Delano approaches him, he thinks this captain looks unhappy, lethargic, and sick. He notices that is attended by a small black man, who looks intently and with great concern into his master's face. Delano is impressed by the devotion he shows as he anticipates his master's every need.

When Delano speaks, he assures the captain that he has come to offer his assistance, but the young man is either too reserved or too sick to respond; Delano notices that he wheezes constantly. To try and break the ice, Delano gives the captain his present of fish. He then sends his own men back to The Bachelor's Delight in order to bring back provisions, including water, cider, and pumpkins. Delano then, speaking Spanish, tries to cheer up the pitiful group before him.

The captain of the San Dominick is Benito Cereno. His frail body is worn to a frazzle, and his mind seems somewhat unstrung. Although Delano is sympathetic towards Cereno since it is obvious that his ship has seen hard times, he wonders why he has not kept his ship a little more orderly, for it seems to be unruly and unruled. Delano also wonders about Cereno's indifference towards the aid that he offers. Then he notices that Cereno seems to have an equal aversion to everyone, including Babo (his servant), his crew, and the African slaves. Delano dismisses Cereno's aloofness as being a typical regal attitude.

As Delano observes the ship, he notices that the deck is as noisy and confused as an emigrant vessel, and more disorganized. Since there are few crew members present to handle the confusion, he wonders what has happened to them. He gets up the courage to ask Cereno the particulars, but he refuses to answer at first. For a period of time, the two captains and the servant simply stand silently, apart from the others, and look at one another.

Finally, Benito Cereno starts to relate the details of the disasters to hit the ship. As he talks, he is often silenced by a hacking cough. When Delano expresses concern for the captain, Babo, the servant, assures him that his master will recover. Babo then tries to fill in a few details of the story until Cereno can speak again. Apparently the San Dominick was hit by a freezing gale, and many crew members were lost. Then many of the remaining passengers and crew grew sick with scurvy and fever; half of the three hundred black slaves on board, more than fifty percent of the whites, and all of the ship's officers were lost to illness. Next the ship was caught in calm water and could not go anywhere for several weeks. When they could travel again, they drifted back and forth because the rigging had been damaged. It seems apparent that they will probably never reach their goal, Baldivia, on the southernmost part of the continent.

In a husky voice, Cereno continues his explanation, while he is half held up by Babo. He says that the Negroes have conducted themselves very well, even better than their owner might have imagined. He then singles out Babo for special praise, saying he has helped to keep order among the others. Captain Delano delights to hear such praise and tells Cereno that he envies him such a servant (refusing to call him a slave).

Captain Delano notices a great difference in clothing between Cereno and Babo. The master is so dressed up in finery it is almost like he is in a costume that is out of time and place; his appearance is a reflection of the ship's condition and a contrast to the simple look of his cleanly dressed servant. Delano sees the pale smoothness of Cereno's hands and assumes he has obtained his position through aristocratic connections, not hard work at sea. Delano's compassion for the Spanish captain is tempered with criticism, but he still cannot resist offering him more aid. He even suggests the use of his crew to pull the San Dominick into port.

This offer seems to throw Cereno into a fit of choking gratitude. Babo tries to calm his master, drawing him aside and reminding him that such excitement is bad for him. When the two of them rejoin Delano, Cereno's hopeless aspect has returned.

Cereno invites Delano up to the poop-deck, the location of the hatchet polishers. Climbing to the deck before Cereno, Delano has a moment of panic when he hears the loud crashing of the hatchets and sees the African slaves, whom he judges dangerous. Once he walks around, he calms down and feels safer. Then a Spanish boy, squatting nearby, says something and is hit with a knife over the head by a couple of African boys. As the blood gushes, Captain Delano is horrified at what has happened. He cannot believe that Cereno says or does nothing about the situation. Delano says that 2such occurrences would not happen on his ship; not only are they not allowed, but everyone on board is too busy all the time to have such skirmishes. Cereno replies, "Doubtless, doubtless," with a worried look on his face.

Delano turns his attention to the oakum-pickers and the hatchet- polishers. Cereno assures him that he has assigned everyone to a job; even the hatchet-polishers are engaged in cleaning up the remaining cargo. He then reveals that he owns everything on the ship, except the slaves, who belong to his late friend, Alexandra Aranda. Cereno becomes visibly upset, almost fainting, when he mentions the name of Aranda. When Delano asks if he died of the fever, Cereno responds in the affirmative, but can say nothing more. Delano tries to comfort the captain, telling him how he has also lost a dear friend at sea, so he knows how difficult it is. When Delano wonders if Aranda's remains are still on board, Cereno gasps and motions against an imagined apparition. Delano feels sorry for the poor captain, even though he knows the two of them are very different.

A tall, majestic African, named Atufal, comes on deck; he is wearing chains that wrap around his body three times and end at an iron girdle. Delano notices that Cereno carries the keys to the man's chain-locks on a silver chord that he wears around his neck. Cereno explains that this man had been the king of his people in Africa. Atufal comes and stands before Cereno, who asks him if he is prepared to ask for pardon. The man lifts his arms and drops them; he then says that he is content as he is. With restrained emotion, Cereno tells him to go. Delano wants to know what this is all about. Cereno tells him that this man has been particularly offensive; therefore, he has been chained and told to appear at regular intervals to ask for pardon. Although the African is basically a decent being, he always refuses to ask and receive pardon. Delano fails to see why such a man should be kept in chains. Babo interrupts Delano's conversation with Cereno to say that he had been a slave of people like Atufal in Africa. Captain Delano is disturbed by the servant's disrespect and falls silent.

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Free Study Guide-Benito Cereno by Herman Melville-Free Chapter Summary
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