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

DEPOSITION SECTION

Summary

His Majesty's Notary swears to the authenticity of the following document, a deposition by Don Benito Cereno against the Negroes of Senegal.

First witness: Benito Cereno is attended by a monk to whom he makes an oath, by God, to tell the truth. He set sail from Valparaiso on the San Dominick with 36 crewmen, 160 African Negroes (including 39 women and children), several passengers, and a load of cargo, which was largely native produce. Bound towards Callao, Cereno's ship departed on the 20th of last May.

None of the African slaves were fettered, for their owner, Alexandro Aranda, had told Captain Cereno that they were all well behaved and trustworthy. Then on the seventh day at sea, at three in the morning, the slaves revolted. The Negroes immediately killed eighteen of the crewmen, who were sleeping on the deck; some were murdered with hatchets, and others were thrown overboard.

The deponent, Benito Cereno, met with a slave named Babo, who was one of the two ringleaders of the revolt. The rebellious leader insisted that the ship take the African slaves to the closest Negro country. When Cereno explained that there were no Negro countries nearby, Babo demanded that the ship go to Senegal, their native land. Cereno tried to explain that Senegal was way too far for the amount of supplies on board. He also said that the passage under Cape Horn was too difficult for the old ship. The deponent was told by Babo that he had no choice but to obey the orders of the slaves. He also promised Cereno that the Negroes would do whatever he said in order to accomplish the journey to Senegal.


Cereno told the slave that the first necessary step was to get additional drinking water. Babo granted his permission, but told the captain that immediate death for the remaining crew would result if he tried to sail into a white inhabited port and seek help. Cereno sailed for eight days, hoping to meet with a friendly vessel that might save them; but no other ship was encountered. Neither did he find an uninhabited port that might offer a fresh supply of water. Cereno finally turned the ship toward Santa Maria, a deserted island, hoping to find water there.

Babo decided that Alexandro Aranda, Cereno's childhood friend and business partner on the voyage, would have to be killed in order to assure the slaves their liberty and to provide an example for the other whites remaining on board. Cereno begged for his friend's life, but his pleas were ignored. Aranda was murdered on deck with the hatchets, and his body taken below. His relatives and staff, who were on board, were then thrown into the sea. One of the passengers, a government official, witnessed the brutal murder and then jumped into the sea in order to escape the same fate as Aranda.

After three days, Cereno was shown the bones of his friend, which had been tied to the front of the ship; the captain was horrified that Aranda had not been given a burial at sea in order to allow his spirit to rest. Cereno and the other crew were then told by Babo that if they did not keep faith with the blacks all the way to Senegal, they would "follow the leader" (Aranda) to their death.

Cereno, hoping to save the lives of the remaining Spaniards on board, promised to give all of the ship's cargo to the Africans if they would not kill any more people. The Africans accepted the offer. Babo, however, still did not trust the captain. He ordered all the small boats cut loose from the ship, except the broken-down long boat and one other he had taken into the hold, for he feared the remaining crew would try to escape. The step was probably unnecessary, for the Spaniards began to die from thirst, illness, and insanity. The Africans proved they were not trustworthy, for they broke their truce and killed the ship's navigator when they erroneously perceived that he made a threatening gesture. Later the slaves realized that they had made a stupid mistake in this murder, for they really needed the navigator in order to get to Senegal.

After seventy-three days from its original port, the San Dominick arrived at Santa Maria, where everyone on board spied The Bachelor's Delight. Babo ordered special preparations, including the placement of the shroud around Aranda's bones. He then came up with a plan that he communicated to all. If someone from the other ship were to board the San Dominick, Cereno would tell just the stories he was told to tell and act exactly as he was told to act. The remaining crew would take their assigned places and act as ordered. In addition, Atufal, the second ringleader of the rebellion, would play the part of a chained slave, even though he could drop the chains at a moment's notice if needed. All of the Spaniards were warned that they would be killed instantly if they strayed from the plan. Cereno would be constantly guarded by Babo, acting as his servant. If the captain uttered a single word more than allowed, he would be killed on the spot by the knife Babo kept hidden on his person at all times.

When Delano came to the ship to offer his assistance, he remained on board all day. Babo never left the deponent alone with Delano for one single moment. Babo forced the Spanish captain to find out the particulars of Captain Delano's ship, for the Africans had decided to take it as well. When Cereno objected, Babo flashed his dagger and told the captain that the Ashantee slaves could easily pull off the capture, with or without his help. Cereno was so upset by the news that he could not look Delano in the eyes during the rest of his visit.

Although the deponent cannot remember every detail that transpired while Delano was on board his ship, he does describe in detail what happened when Delano departed. In an attempt to save himself and tell Delano about the intended capture of The Bachelor's Delight, he jumps into Delano's small boat. Cereno then breaks his narrative to offer a written word of thanks to Delano within the deposition.

Although not all of the Negroes were in on the planning of the revolt, like Babo and Atufal, all of them participated; some of them even got carried away and committed useless, random acts of violence against the Spaniards. Of the crew and passengers, no passengers were left alive, and only ten of the crew remained, including the cabin boys, one of whom had his arms broken and was hit with hatchet strokes. Francesco, the mulatto, wanted to poison Delano, but Babo stopped him, explaining that they needed his help to reach Senegal. The personal servant of Aranda even joined the fight and actually stabbed his master without being ordered to do so.

The female Africans on board also became very vocal during the violence. They were delighted at the death of their owner, Aranda, and wanted all of the crew to be tortured to death, especially Cereno. During the murders, they sang melancholy songs.

Cereno tried to drop hints about the revolt to Captain Delano while he was on board; but he did not understand any of them. As a result, he felt his only choice was to jump into Delano's boat. Little did he know that Babo would follow him there and threaten to stab him with his knife. Fortunately, Delano finally understood what was going on and disarmed the ringleader. Delano later sent his crew back to retake the San Dominick. Even though they had no firearms, the African slaves violently fought against the American crew. Some of the Negroes were killed during the battle, and others were killed or threatened afterwards by a couple of Spanish sailors. When Delano learned of the violence after the battle, he ordered everyone to desist. The remaining slaves were all made prisoners, and Delano set sail for Lima, Peru, in order for the case to be heard before the court.

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