Summary and Analysis
Don Benito appears to fluctuate between gratitude and despair. He invites the captain to the upper rear deck, where Delano witnesses a violent clash between a young black boy and his Spanish companions. Delano advises Don Benito to keep the blacks better occupied to avoid further incidents. Benito replies that he brought up cases of knives and hatchets for certain slaves to clean. To Delano's question about who owns the slaves, Benito answers that he is the owner "of all you see . . . except the main company of blacks, who belonged to his late friend Alexandro Aranda, who died of the 'fever.'"
Apart from Delano, Babo and Cereno whisper together and appear to refer to their American guest. Delano grows peevish with their inhospitable treatment and turns his attention toward a Spanish sailor, who appears to look at him with a covert intentness. Delano considers the possibility that Cereno is an imposter, but an examination of his aristocratic profile assures his identity as a "true hidalgo Cereno."
To Cereno's questions about his men and his ship, Delano replies that a crew of twenty-five sail the Bachelor's Delight, that he traded in Canton for silks and tea and some silver currency, and that the ship is fully manned and armed with a cannon or two and the usual assortment of small weapons. Babo's whispering with Cereno resumes, during which time the Spanish sailor descends the rigging, keeping an eye on their conference. As Delano climbs down from the rear deck, he sees the Spanish sailor quickly conceal a sparkling object in his shirtfront. Unnerved by ominous thoughts about pirates and treachery, Delano begins to wonder about the situation aboard the San Dominick, then dismisses his gloomy suppositions and returns to his plan to send his second mate to serve as substitute captain on the voyage to Concepcion.
Delano's musings halt with the appearance of his whale-boat at a distance. Moments later, on a deck below, a second violent episode occurs when two blacks dash a Spanish sailor to the deck, provoking an outcry from Delano. Cereno, who is overcome by a spasm of coughing, falls into the ready hands of Babo. Delano is so impressed by the servant's solicitude that he offers to buy him for fifty doubloons. Babo murmurs that "Master wouldn't part with Babo for a thousand doubloons."
Unable to remain on deck, Cereno is escorted below. As Delano accompanies Babo and his master, he passes other Spanish sailors who eye him meaningfully, and one particular sailor, tarring the strap on a block, seems steeped in criminality. Delano also notices an old bear-like Barcelona sailor splicing a rope and engages him with questions about the voyage, then turns his attention to a sleeping black woman, whose baby tries futilely to nurse. Observing the ruined state of what was once a handsome ship, Delano notes a sailor who seems to be gesturing toward the balcony. A rotted balustrade gives way, causing Delano to clutch a rope to save himself from falling overboard.
Later, drawing the attention of one of the old oakum pickers, Delano returns to the deck, where he spies an elderly sailor sitting cross-legged near a hatchway. Working up a huge knot, seemingly made of combinations of many different knots, the old man tosses the bulky object to Delano and mutters in broken English, "Undo it, cut it, quick." Delano says nothing, then turns to find Atufal standing silently behind. The old sailor disappears into the crowd. An elderly man appears and refers to the man as simple-witted, claims the knot, and tosses it overboard.
Around noon on the overcast day, Delano, seeking a respite from the unfathomable goings-on aboard the San Dominick, turns his attention to his approaching whale-boat, the Rover, which restores his mind from suspicious thoughts to "a thousand trustful associations." Keeping his men in the Rover, he distributes his gifts of pumpkins, bread, sugar, cider, and water. The blacks shove their way to the water; Delano pushes his way free of them. For an instant, the situation threatens to erupt into violence: the hatchet-polishers observe his menacing action; Cereno cries out. Then the oakum pickers restore order.
Repeated miscommunication throughout the rising action underscores a central theme — the inability of characters to express or understand crucial matters. One aspect of this lapse of communication is Babo and Atufal's constant censorship of Cereno. So repressed and timorous is Cereno that his coughing literally cuts off his words. When Cereno whispers to Babo, Captain Delano mistakenly construes the act as discourtesy or conspiracy rather than a response to coercion. More significant to the historical and sociological nature of the plot is the eruption of black slaves against a system that transports them like case goods from their native land to the point of sale. The commercial system which negates their personhood denies them communication until they explode in desperation — with mutinous violence.
Other examples of miscommunication form a wedge between Cereno and his would-be rescuer, Captain Delano. After Cereno's pitiable disclosure of his friend's death, Delano demonstrates compassion by remarking on his own loss of a beloved brother and his vow that never would he travel with a loved one without means to embalm the body should his companion die en route. His innocent reference to the disposal of Aranda's corpse provokes more quavering in Cereno, who, sorely distressed, faints in the arms of his attendant/jailer because he is unable to reveal the location of the slave dealer's remains. Delano again jumps to a faulty conclusion — that Cereno fears ghosts.
The tangle brought about by these failed messages is reflected in a single organizing symbol — the huge knot, suggestive of the great enigma presented by the San Dominick. Cereno and the Spanish sailors, who are ostensibly the masters of the trading vessel, lack the opportunity to convey their peril. As a result, Captain Delano is perplexed over so many curious looks and untoward shipboard experiences. Consequently, the captain is incapable of doing anything with the knot, just as he cannot unravel the mystery aboard the ship until he evaluates the snarled relationships in their true light.
hawse-hole hole in the bow where cables pass through to the outside.
Ashantee (Ashanti) natives of a rural section of central Ghana.
supercargo ship's manager of sales.
Rothschild wealthy European banking family.
a true hidalgo Cereno noble gentleman of the Cereno family.
six-pounder small cannon.
Freemason member of a fraternal organization which practices secret rituals.
Malay pirates Chinese brigands who once inhabited ports in Southeast Asia.
doubloon Spanish gold coin.
Caffre (Kaffir) South African of the Bantu nation.
whiskerando bearded face.
Ledyard (1751-89) John Ledyard, who once journeyed with Captain Cook, was an American adventurer who died in Cairo.
mizzen-chains chains to the lowest sails, both fore and aft.
cat's-paw slight breeze.
parterres gardens laced with interconnecting paths.
marlingspike iron pick used to separate strands of a rope.
Gordian knots a reference to the intricate knot tied by the king of Phrygia and cut by Alexander the Great. In literature, the knot symbolizes a complicated problem.
Ammon Amon-Re, king of the gods of ancient Egypt.
double-bowline-knot a jam-proof, or sailor's knot with a loop on the end that can be tied and untied quickly.
treble-crown-knot a three-headed knot which finishes off the raw end of a piece of rope.
back-handed-well-knot a knot tied the way a left-handed person would tie it. Reputedly, sailors are superstitious, and normally, they would tie all the ship's knots the way right-handed people tie them. There was a practical reason, as well, for this custom. If one were caught in an emergency in the dark, knots would never be confusing. They could easily be untied or retied and tightened without cutting them. The phrase "learning the ropes" has nautical origins; it means learning to tie (and untie) all of the various knots used aboard ship — no small job.
jamming-knot A bend knot and a hitch knot were both referred to as jamming-knots.
clout like an infant's diaper-like garment.
Newfoundland dog a large shaggy dog known for its deep affection for its owner.