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Cereno is the young captain of the Spanish galleon, the San Dominick. During the course of the story, he shows himself to be a rather pathetic, highly nervous character. Even after it is obvious that he has been "acting" under extraordinarily horrible conditions, his weakness is accented, for he is unable to bounce back from the trauma he has undergone, even though his life and ship are saved with Delano's help.
It appears that Cereno comes from fine lineage and has won his position as captain from connections more than from experience. As a result, he is not wise enough to foresee the disaster that is forthcoming on his ship; neither is he strong enough to do much about the rebellion once it has begun. He is clever enough to try and hint to Delano that things are amiss on the San Dominick, but Delano is too dense and naïve to understand the subtleties.
Cereno is very bothered by the fact that Delano is being innocently pulled into the rebellion and that his ship, The Bachelor's Delight, is doomed to an attack by the Africans. Unable to make Delano understand his hints, he jumps into the whaleboat, not just to save himself, but to warn Delano of the impending danger to him and his men; it is his most noble act and the turning point of the story. When Delano saves his life, Cereno is very appreciative of his efforts.
After the rescue, Delano takes Cereno to Lima, Peru, so that he can tell the authorities about the rebellion on his ship. The story closes with the deposition that Cereno writes, giving all the gory details of the insurrection. Even though Benito Cereno manages to save his remaining crew and Delano's crew, he cannot save himself. Never recovering from his horrible experiences, he dies three months later in a monastery, where he has gone to recuperate.
Captain Delano is a simple, good-hearted, American sea captain, who symbolizes goodness in the story. Although the tale is called "Benito Cereno," it is really Delano's story, for it is told from his perspective. Even though the point of view is third person, the reader can only see and know what Delano knows. Since he is a naïve person, he does not always see everything as it really is.
Being positive and good-natured, Delano also has a tendency to see everything in the best light. As a result, whenever he has a suspicion about what is happening on the Spanish ship, he chastises himself for being silly and fearful
Delano is a good captain, who strives to run a tight, well-ordered ship. As a result, he is horrified to see the San Dominick floundering in the waves; he immediately decides to go and offer his assistance, certain that there is trouble on board. From the moment he steps foot on board the San Dominick, he meets with one masquerade after another. Because of his basic nature and outlook on life, Delano never really suspects that a slave rebellion has occurred on the San Dominick. Even when Babo holds the shaving knife up in a threatening gesture towards Cereno or when the Spanish sailor makes a knot and throws it at him, Delano dismisses his uneasiness, blaming it on the foreignness of the ship.
Toward the end of the story, as he talks with Cereno about the rebellion, Delano admits that he was simply too trusting to realize what was taking place before his very eyes.
Although Delano is not very intelligent or perceptive, he proves repeatedly that he is a good man. Of his own free will, he travels out to the San Dominick to offer his assistance to the floundering ship. Even when he is not warmly greeted, he sends his own crew out to get water and supplies for the Spaniards and Africans on board. He looks at the Negro women with their children and feels his heart being warmed. When Cereno jumps into his boat, followed by Babo, Delano is determined to save and protect the Spanish captain. After Cereno is rescued, Delano sends his own men out to the San Dominick to put down the rebellion of the slaves; Delano is wise and worldly enough to offer rewards for those he help to defeat the rebels. After the fighting has ceased and the Africans are taken captive, Delano decides he must sail his ship to Lima, Peru, so that the authorities can learn the truth of the rebellion.
Although not much is known about Babo, he appears to be a very interesting character, even though the story never addresses his view of things. He is largely presented as a clever and evil scoundrel who is the ringleader of the slave rebellion. After the details of the uprising are known, it becomes obvious that Babo carefully plotted and planned the rebellion and the masquerade that followed.
As soon as the Africans revolt, Babo takes control. He is the one who tells Cereno that he will take the Africans to Senegal. He is also the one who orders the deaths of Aranda and his staff, of certain crew members, and of the passengers; he is also the one who spares Cereno, knowing that the captain is needed for safe passage to their destination. Most important to the actual story, Babo is the one who cleverly designs the masquerade to trick Delano. Pretending to be the servant to Cereno, he is always present with Delano to make certain that Cereno can tell this guest nothing about the revolt.
Babo seems to be fearless. He calmly watches the hatcheting death of Aranda and then puts his bones up on the bow as a reminder to the other Spaniards to do as they are told. He never grows rattled in front of Delano, even when the American captain requests of Cereno that Babo be dismissed so that they can talk confidentially. When Cereno jumps into the whale boat, Babo, without a thought or fear, follows him, even though it will certainly mean his end, for he is terrible outnumbered. Once he is in captivity, he refuses to say a word.
In the end, Babo is tried for the rebellion and convicted. His death is appropriately cruel, as he is drug behind a mule. To further shame his name and actions, his head is severed and displayed in the town square for all to see and despise; therefore, the symbol of evil in the book is overcome by good. In the process, Babo gets his just reward for the horrors he has inflicted on others; but he is also remembered as a clever character with great reserves of self- confidence, strength, and determination.