Note: Because Benito Cereno is not divided into chapters, this commentary will indicate units of the text by beginning and ending phrases and by page numbers. The page numbers cited refer to the 1998 Signet Classic edition of Billy Budd and Other Tales (ISBN 0-451-52687-2), with introduction by Joyce Carol Oates. The section numbers used in this commentary are not present in Melville’s text.
Section 8: “Upon gaining the deck…” through “…by night and by day” (pp. 196-208)
Delano takes charge, ordering the San Dominick into safe harbor. Babo repeats the orders Delano gives. Satisfied at the progress the vessel is making, Delano retires to the cabin to report to Cereno—Babo always following close behind. Remarking on Atufal’s presence outside the cabin and presuming the slave stands there on Cereno’s orders, Delano remarks that the Spanish captain must be “a bitter hard master.” The remark causes Cereno visible consternation—which Delano attributes to a “genuine twinge” of Cereno’s conscience.
As the San Dominick moves closer to the harbor, Delano invites Cereno to come aboard Delano’s ship, the Bachelor’s Delight, for coffee and conversation. Much agitated, Cereno refuses the invitation. The refusal causes Delano much offense; at last, it seems, the good captain is ready to be quit of his Spanish counterpart. This resolve seems justified to Delano in view of the utter reserve with which Cereno treats him as he prepares to leave the San Dominick for the boat which will bear him back to the Bachelor’s Delight. Ultimately, however, Delano’s habitual good nature reasserts itself, and he takes satisfaction in knowing that he has performed a good deed, even should Cereno prove ungrateful.
And yet, as Delano (with first-time readers of the text) now learns, ingratitude is the furthest thing from Cereno’s disposition at the moment. The Spanish captain leaps off the deck of the San Dominick into Delano’s boat. Babo, true to form, follows close behind Cereno. Delano at first thinks that Cereno intends to murder him; he spies Babo wielding a dagger. Suddenly, though, the realization dawns upon Delano, and all is made clear: Benito Cereno is escaping from his vessel, which has been commandeered by Babo and the slaves. This inward revelation is matched by the outward revelation of the San Dominick’s shrouded figurehead: it is the skeleton of Don Aranda, with the chalked words of warning, “Follow Your Leader.”
Events move rapidly as Delano and the boat struggle back to the Bachelor’s Delight, fending off the attack of Babo and the slaves from the San Dominick. The American boat fires volleys at the San Dominick. Having no ammunition with which to fight, the slaves throw the hatchets that they have been polishing. Atufal is killed in the gunfire, along with many more blacks. Yet at last, the ship is secured, and the rebellion is quelled. After two days’ refitting, the ships all sail for Lima, Peru, where a legal investigation commences.
Melville continues to employ irony to great effect in this, the final section of the narrative in which any action of consequence occurs. For example, Delano’s speech to Cereno as the San Dominick sails speedily into harbor is full of irony: “Better and better, Don Benito… there will soon be an end to your cares” (p. 198). Delano, of course, means that the supposedly long and hard voyage of the San Dominick will have at last ended; Cereno, of course, fears for his life once Delano will have departed—bringing Cereno’s cares to a most definite end! Melville also brings the imagery of death that has surfaced throughout the text to its culmination here, in such subtle touches as describing Cereno as rejecting Delano’s invitation to board the Bachelor’s Delight with “a sort of cadaverous sullenness” (p. 199); to more dramatic moments, as, clearly, the revelation of Don Aranda’s bleached skeleton at the San Dominick’s prow, “death for the figurehead” (p. 205).
The moment when Delano finally seems to have resolved to stop extending his courtesies to Cereno is a telling one. “Captain Delano’s pride began to be roused,” the narrator tells us (p. 199)—but, of course, we have seen throughout how Delano is a proud man, clearly regarding himself as Cereno’s superior during the tale’s course of events. Once more, readers could ponder whether Melville is mounting an implicit criticism of his young nation’s position vis-à-vis the rest of the world. Since colonial days, of course, America has set itself the near-messianic task of being a “city set upon a hill,” in the words of John Winthrop’s famous sermon aboard the Arabella. Do we not catch echoes of that attitude in such reflections from Delano as, “if [Cereno] has little breeding, the more need to show mine” (p. 200)? If America is to be the “savior” of the “old world”—a possible reading of the text further suggested by Cereno’s comments near the novel’s end, that “God charmed your life, but you saved mine” (p. 224)—then America, in the text’s judgment, may not be doing the best job of that task, seeing as how Delano almost leaves Cereno to his fate at the hands of the mutineers. Delano, as we have seen before, relies overly much on pleasing appearances—as in the moments in this section when he is preparing to disembark from the San Dominick, appearances that cause him to berate himself mentally for his momentary, “atheist doubt of the ever-watchful Providence above” (p. 201). Yet might not Melville be suggesting that America puts too much “blind faith” (not the author’s term) in that “ever-watchful Providence,” thus forfeiting its responsibility to be “ever-watchful” of its own actions, faults, and intentions in the world? Might not Melville’s text be once more giving the lie to young America’s most cherished illusions about itself—that it is always charitable and ever-ready to embrace people at their best, even as one of its representatives on the sea is thinking racist thoughts about not only Spaniards but also Jews (p. 201) while he guides a slave ship to harbor, apparently content to let it continue on its way thenceforth with its human cargo?
A literal “revelation” accompanies the revelation of the truth about the San Dominick: Delano at last sees the shrouded figurehead of the commandeered vessel. It is the skeleton of Don Aranda—whose death we saw Cereno mourning earlier in the text; and who, unbeknownst to Delano, was still quite aboard the ship (see p. 161)—along with the chalked words, “Follow Your Leader.” The image is striking on several levels. First of all, it is a graphic depiction of the violence that has been done (and which will be detailed in a more dispassionate manner in the court transcripts that form the next section of the novel). Secondly, it reinforces the general air of death that has hung over the San Dominick throughout the novel. If the San Dominick is indeed a floating cipher in the text for the “old world,” then here is the strongest symbolic statement of its fate: death and decay. Thirdly, however, we will learn shortly whose figure the skeleton of Don Aranda has replaced as figurehead: none other than that of “Christopher Colón, the discoverer of the New World” (p. 224). Here again, we may have symbolic evidence of the text’s indictment of the New World as really not being that much different from, and certainly not superior to the Old. If the New World is to “follow its leader”—its “discoverer” (but only from a white European perspective, of course), Christopher Columbus—then it will follow him to death. Don Aranda’s skeleton emerges as a grim statement, perhaps, that death and decay are unavoidable, for the New World or the Old—and surely, surely, while the New World is engaged in the practice of slavery. For Don Aranda’s skeleton was placed at the prow of the San Dominick as a warning: a visual parable of what the Bible calls “the wages of sin”—the sin in this case being the sin committed against Babo and the other slaves. As we have noted, the text’s opinion of slavery is difficult to gauge; but the fact that the slaves chose this method of asserting themselves may lend credence to a reading of Benito Cereno as a text not as racist as modern readers may assume. Simply put: if the New World continues to traffic in slaves—and, in 1855, when the novel first saw print, the question was still very much alive—it, too, will die spiritually and morally as surely as has the Old. (Ironically, however, even this seemingly unambiguous symbol of death serves a dual purpose before the section has ended: illuminated by moonlight, it actually encourages the Americans to retake the San Dominick—“One extended arm of the ghost [i.e., Don Aranda’s skeleton] seemed beckoning the whites to avenge it” [p. 207]).