A deposition from Don Benito, taken on September 24, 1799, by the king’s notary, indicates that on May 20, 1799, on a voyage from Valparaiso to Callao, the ship sailed with thirty cases of hardware, 160 blacks, a crew of thirty-six, and some passengers. There follows a segment of a passenger census, naming Jose, Aranda’s personal servant; Francesco, the cabin steward; Dago; four elderly African caulkers; six adult Ashantis; Atufal, a former African chief; Babo, a small Senegalese; and thirty-nine women and children.
At the time of the uprising, the blacks, led by Babo and Atufal, his assistant, were unfettered. They rose up and murdered eighteen Spaniards with hatchets and hand-spikes or tied them and tossed them overboard to drown. Confining the officers below decks, Babo directed Cereno to take them to Senegal or the nearby islands of St. Nicholas. There were insufficient water, provisions, and sails on the decrepit ship, but Babo insisted that they make the attempt. Cereno, hoping to encounter another foreign vessel, agreed to the plan.
Babo insisted that they go to Santa Maria to load water. During a tense period of private negotiations, Babo decided to slay Aranda to assure the blacks their freedom. Don Benito begged in vain for his friend’s life. Babo had two Ashantis mutilate Aranda with hatchets, drag him on deck, then kill him and return the body below deck. Four days later, following atrocities to passengers and crew, Babo displayed Aranda’s skeletal remains, which were substituted for the ship’s figurehead, and led each Spaniard to a private showing along with the reminder that they must cooperate with the cabal or follow their leader to a grim death. The tense battle of wills ended with Cereno signing an agreement that the Spaniards would convey the blacks to Senegal and that the ship and its cargo belonged to Babo and his followers. To assure the plan, Babo destroyed all boats but a rickety long-boat and a cutter, which would be needed for ferrying water.
A five-day period of calm intensified suffering. On August 17, the San Dominick arrived at Santa Maria, casting anchor very near Delano’s ship. By six o’clock the next morning, to conceal their rebellion from Delano, Babo ordered the skeleton covered with canvas, then arranged the blacks in abject postures about the deck as though Cereno were still in charge. By seven thirty, Delano boarded. Babo, pretending to be a caring, obedient servant, remained near Cereno and directed him to seek information about the crew and arms of the Bachelor’s Delight so that the Ashantis could capture it.
The deposition continues, concluding with a description of the boarding battle, which ended at midnight, and Delano constraining Spanish sailors from committing atrocities against the captured blacks.
At the end of the inquiry, Cereno, describing himself as twenty-nine years old but “broken in body and mind,” intends to remain in the care of Infelez, a nurturing monk; he vows to retire to a monastery on Mount Agonia. After sailors identify the unrelenting Babo in a Lima court, he is humiliated, gibbeted, and his body burned. His head, fixed on a pole, stares inexorably at white residents and at St. Bartholomew’s church, where Aranda’s remains were interred. Three months later, in sight of Babo’s brazen stare, Benito Cereno dies.
Through his darkly prophetic morality tale, Melville indicates that the New World carries the weight of Europe’s sins — notably, the theft of liberty from black slaves. The symbolic replacement of the statue of Christopher Columbus with the sickly, white skeletal remains of the slaver, Alexandro Aranda, above Babo’s chalked directive points up the grim theme of retribution. Obviously, those “following the leader” and profiting most from the misery of human bondage must pay a price, as Babo sets out to prove when he shepherds the Spaniards one by one to a private showing, then begins the massacre. Some of the Europeans, like shackled slaves, die in the sea, unable to thrash their limbs against the waters that suffocate them. Others supplant their black counterparts by becoming white slaves to black masters.
Although Don Benito, whose name translates “Lord Blessed,” does not appear to do manual labor for Babo, he does, while posing as captain of the ship, serve as mouthpiece for his manipulator. Cereno survives the ordeal, yet his attenuated body, depleted of vitality, holds little promise of recovery. He makes up to Delano for the deception he perpetrated during the visit to his ship. Warmly attached to his rescuer, he laments that the benevolence of an open sky, sun, and sea are not enough recompense for his sufferings. The traumatic nature of the events is so devastating that he is doomed to a brief life. Delano urges him to take hope, yet Cereno, burdened by memory, finds himself permanently shadowed by “the negro.”
Senegal a republic on the west coast of Africa.
St. Nicholas one of the Cape Verde Islands off Senegal.
Nasca (Nazca) an inland city southeast of Lima, Peru.
Pisco a coastal city southeast of Lima, Peru.
acts of contrition a sincere change of heart and request for forgiveness.
Hospital de Sacerdotes a charitable institution run by priests.