'Benito Cereno,' by Herman Melville, Part Three

15 December, 2017

We present the last of three parts of the short story "Benito Cereno." It was written by Herman Melville.

As we told you in earlier parts of our story, rebel slaves seized the ship San Dominick off the coast of Chile. They killed many of its officers and crew. The captain, Benito Cereno, was ordered to sail to Senegal. But first, he was forced to take the ship to the lonely island of Santa Maria, near the southern end of Chile. There, it could safely get water and supplies for the long, dangerous voyage to Africa.

At the island, the rebels were surprised and frightened when they found an American ship anchored in the harbor. It also had stopped for water. Many of the rebels wanted to sail away. But their leader, Babo, opposed it. They had little water and food, and could not go far. Babo created a story to keep anyone from suspecting that the Spanish vessel was in the hands of rebels, and that its captain was a prisoner.

At first, Babo seemed successful. The captain of the American ship, Amasa Delano, visited the San Dominick. He suspected nothing, although surprised by the general disorder on board. He also could not understand the strange behavior of its captain, Benito Cereno. Later incidents, however, began to worry him. Captain Delano grew more and more suspicious. At one time, he even feared that his life might be in danger.

Twice, he caught the Spanish captain and his servant, Babo, with their heads together, whispering like two conspirators. It made Captain Delano wonder. Were they plotting to kill him and seize his ship? Who were these men, cut throats? Pirates?

Captian Delano grew nervous. Then, he was happy to see his whale boat off in the distance. It was returning with supplies for the Spanish ship. The sight of his boat calmed him. It made his suspicions and fear quickly disappear. He felt foolish for having had such dark thoughts.

Now, here is Shep O'Neal with the rest of our story, "Benito Cereno."

Captain Delano went down to Captain Cereno's cabin to cheer him up and say goodbye.

"Better and better, Don Benito," he said as he entered the cabin, "your troubles will soon be over." The American invited the Spanish captain to come aboard his boat for a cup of coffee.

Cereno's eyes brightened. But then the light in them died. He shook his head and said he could not accept the invitation. Captain Delano was offended. He was about to withdraw when Don Benito rose from his chair and took Delano's hand. The Spaniard's hand shook. And he was too excited to speak. Delano pulled his hand away and turned, climbing back to the deck. His face was troubled.

Captain Delano could not understand Don Benito's actions. One minute the Spaniard was warm and polite. Then -- just as quickly -- cold and hostile. Captain Delano asked himself: Why did he refuse to join me? Why is he so unfriendly?

Captain Delano got to the deck and was about to step down into his boat when he heard his name. To his surprise, Don Benito was calling, coming quickly toward him.

Captain Delano was pleased and turned back to meet him. Don Benito warmly took his hand, with more energy and emotion than he had ever shown. But his excitement seemed too much for him, and he could not speak. Babo then came between the two men and put his arm around Don Benito to support him. Clearly, he wanted to end the meeting between the two captains.

Walking between the two men, Babo went with them to the walkway. Don Benito would not let go of Captain Delano's hand. He held it tightly across the servant's body.

Soon, they were standing by the ship's side, looking down onto the American boat. Its crew turned up their wondering eyes. Captain Delano did not know what to do as he waited for Don Benito to let go of his hand. He wanted to step down into his boat. But Don Benito still firmly held his hand.

Then, in an excited voice the Spaniard said: "I can go no further. Here I must say goodbye. Farewell, my dear, dear Don Amasa. Go! Go!" And he tore his hand loose. "Go, and God protect you better than he did me. Go, Don Amasa, my best friend."

Captain Delano was deeply moved. He would have stayed for another minute or so, but he caught the eye of Babo. It seemed to say, ‘This is bad for Don Benito's health.' And so he quickly took the short step down into his boat with the continuing farewells of Don Benito, who stood rooted at the ship's side.

Captain Delano sat down in the back of his boat, gave Don Benito a last salute, and ordered his men to push off. The boat began to move. Suddenly, Don Benito sprang over the side and came down at Delano's feet. And he kept shouting toward the Spanish ship. His cries were so wild that no one could understand him.

An American officer asked what does this mean. Captain Delano turned a cold smile upon Captain Cereno and said he neither knew nor cared. It seems, he added, that the Spaniard has taken it into his head to give his people the idea that we want to kidnap him. Or else...and suddenly Captain Delano shouted: "Watch out for your lives!" He saw Babo, the servant, on the rail above, with a dagger in his hand. He was ready to jump.

What followed happened so quickly that Captain Delano could not tell one incident from another. They all came together in one great blur of violent action and excitement.

As Babo came down, Captain Delano flung Don Benito aside and caught the rebel leader, pulling the dagger from his hand. He pushed Babo firmly down in the bottom of the boat, which now began to pick up speed. Then, Babo, with his one free hand, pulled a second dagger from his clothes and struck at Captain Cereno. Captain Delano knocked it from his hand.

Now, he saw everything clearly: Babo had leaped into the whale boat – not to kill him – but to kill Captain Cereno.

For the first time, he understood the mysterious behavior of Don Benito – a prisoner under sentence of death. He looked back at the Spanish ship and got a clear picture of what its captain had escaped.

On board the San Dominick, the shouting rebels were raising their axes and knives in a wild revolt. They stopped some of the Spanish sailors from jumping into the sea. A few, however, jumped, while two or three, who were not quick enough, went hurrying up the top-most wood arms.

Captain Delano signaled to his ship, ordering it to get its guns ready. When the whale boat reached his ship Captain Delano asked for ropes. He tied Babo, and had him pulled up on deck. A small boat was quickly sent out to pick up three Spanish sailors who had jumped from Captain Cereno's ship.

Captain Delano asked Don Benito what guns the rebels had. He answered that they had none that could be used. In the first days of the rebellion, a cabin passenger now dead had destroyed the few guns there were.

The Americans fired six shots at the San Dominick. But the rebel ship moved out of reach. Small boats were armed and lowered. Captain Delano ordered his men into them. And they moved out to capture the rebel ship.

The boats caught up with the San Dominick when it was nearly night. But the moon was rising, and the gunners were able to see where they were shooting. The rebels had no bullets. And they could do nothing but yell. Many of the rebels were killed and the San Dominick was captured.

After an investigation, Babo was found guilty of stealing a ship and of murder, and was hanged. Captain Benito Cereno never was well again and he soon died. So, ended the terrible story of the slave revolt aboard the slave ship, the San Dominick.

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Words in This Story

incidentn. an event or something that happens

whale boat - n. a long rowboat with a bow at either end for easy maneuverability, formerly used in whaling

dagger - n. a sharp pointed knife that is used as a weapon

gunners - n. a soldier who operates a large gun