Three main characters occupy center stage in Benito Cereno:
Captain Amasa Delano
He is the American naval commander of the Bachelor’s Delight who responds to the San Dominick when he sees that Spanish vessel in distress off the southern coast of Chile. He is referred to many times throughout the text with such phrases as “the good captain Delano,” emphasizing his supposed morality, virtue, and righteousness; he is also referred to several times as “the American,” which suggests Melville may intend for this character to represent the young republic itself. If so, then the degree to which Delano relies on prejudice and presupposition, some positive but also negative, about his fellow human beings—for example, the acceptance of the notion that blacks exist only as subservient and in significant ways subhuman servants to whites; or that the (white?) human heart is fundamentally incapable of deceit or treachery—raise serious questions about young America’s moral self-identity as it finds its way as a rising world power. Delano is easily and consistently fooled by Babo’s scheme to hide the fact of the mutiny aboard the San Dominick because he prefers to see pleasing sights and think pleasing thoughts. His naïve approach to others nearly costs him his life.
Don Benito Cereno
He is the commanding officer of the Spanish vessel the San Dominick—or was until Babo and Atufal led the slaves the ship carried in a revolt. Cereno remains an enigma to Delano and to readers throughout much of the text, alternatively expressive and recalcitrant, revelatory and concealing. Readers do not learn until the end of the text that his manner is attributed to the fact that the slaves have commandeered his ship. When Cereno stands finally revealed by the narrative’s close, he is, as the court documents put it, a broken man. Ironically, Delano, for all his willful ignorance of the truth aboard the Spanish vessel, may not be too far from the mark when he reflects that Cereno may be one of those captains who “commands” in name only; for Cereno is clearly in command neither of his ship nor of his own inner life.
He is the leader of the slave rebellion aboard the San Dominick and is, in Cereno’s eyes (though not necessarily Melville’s), the villain of the piece. He is “crafty” (more positively stated, intelligent) and plans the ruse that keeps Delano blind to the truth of his situation in careful and specific detail. Babo is a superbly crafted ironic creation on Melville’s part: although he appears (again, at leas to Delano’s eyes) to fit the white stereotype of the content-to-be-subservient black, Babo is truly in command of the vessel and the situation. At every turn, what appears to be Babo’s “serving” of Benito Cereno is actually his careful controlling of him, casting doubt on Delano’s (and doubtless some of Melville’s original, white readership) on “accepted wisdom” about “the Negro.”