Summary and Analysis
In 1799, the Bachelor's Delight, Captain Amasa Delano's sealer and trader, anchors in the harbor of St. Maria, a small uninhabited island off the south end of Chile, in order to take on fresh water. On the second day, a gray morning, shortly after sunrise, the mate reports the arrival of a strange ship in the bay. Delano registers surprise that the ship bears no flag to identify its nationality.
As the ship approaches a sunken reef, Delano, alarmed for the craft's safety, orders his whale-boat dropped and prepares to board the vessel to help pilot it into the bay. On closer examination, he identifies the ship as a "Spanish merchantman of the first class" and a slaver. At one time handsomely ornate, the San Dominick has fallen into decay from insufficient upkeep. Its figurehead is draped with canvas as if it were under repairs.
Upon Delano's arrival, he is thronged by people both white and black. Their unanimous outcry relates their losses from scurvy, fever, and a harrowing voyage around Cape Horn. Delano, struck by the unreal quality of the scene, observes four aged black men on the cat-head picking oakum. To the rear, on an elevated deck, six more men are scouring rust from hatchets.
Leaning against the main-mast is Don Benito Cereno, a sickly man closely attended by a short black servant. Speaking freely in Spanish, Delano, who presents a basket of fresh fish, observes that Cereno, ill with lung disease, is too nervous and moody to take full command of his ship. Rather, he depends completely on the ministrations of his devoted servant, Babo. No other officers assist Cereno with his command.
Don Benito invites Captain Delano to a privileged spot on the after-deck and tells him of the half-year voyage from Buenos Ayres (Aires) to Lima, during which his trading vessel, carrying three hundred slaves, hardware, tea, and passengers, suffered the drowning of three officers and fifteen sailors. To lighten the hull, Cereno threw sacks of mata and containers of water into the sea. As the ship was buffeted by storms off Cape Horn, scurvy killed many blacks and whites. Blown off course, then becalmed by lack of winds, the people aboard the San Dominick were wracked by thirst. Resultant fever killed a large portion of the whites aboard, including the remainder of the officers.
Under ragged sails, the ship limped toward Baldivia, where Don Benito lost his way in inclement weather. He indicates to Delano that he owes a debt of gratitude to the blacks, who, according to their owner, required no incarceration. Cereno concludes that Babo served as pacifier of any incipient rebellion among his fellow blacks. After pondering the trials of the San Dominick, Delano promises to offset its losses by supplying sails, rigging, and water so that Cereno can proceed to Concepcion for refitting, and from there to Lima.
A significant figure among Melville's graphic, incisive images is the stern-piece, which features a "dark satyr in a mask, holding his foot on the prostrate neck of a writhing figure, likewise masked." Picturing in miniature the entire plot of the story, the mythic satyr's tyrannical pose above the cringing victim suggests the slaves' domination of the Spaniards. The masking of both figures represents the secrecy which conceals from Captain Delano the real state of mastery aboard the San Dominick. The irony of this stern-piece is the overriding motif, or pattern, of Spanish grandeur — the "arms of Castile [Castille] and Leon," which appear to herald the dominance of Spain, the European nation which bankrolled the voyages of explorer Christopher Columbus, reputed founder of the New World.
Delano establishes his own pattern of failing to interpret the other behaviors and symbols of power that he observes during his twelve-hour visit. Lacking respect for the black mens' abilities and thinking of command in terms of his own professional control of shipboard behavior, Captain Delano jumps to conclusions about Don Benito's ability to captain a ship. A proud man, Delano cannot imagine letting a ship fall into so dismal a state of repair as the "slovenly neglect pervading [San Dominick]." He fluctuates between pity for his Spanish colleague and contempt for his failings as a leader. Delano's error in evaluating the situation aboard the San Dominick ultimately puts his life in danger, since he fails to perceive that the men may have designs on the Bachelor's Delight as well.
a Lima intriguante's one sinister eye peering across the Plaza from the Indian loop-hole of her dusk saya-y-manta like a Peruvian plotter peeping with one eye across the Lima marketplace from her dark skirt/blanket.
freebooter pirate, or adventurer.
Black Friars Dominican priests, who garb themselves in black.
Ezekiel's Valley of Dry Bones In Chapter 36 of the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, the grim prophet foresees how a desolate valley will return to life and function.
Froissart (1333?-1405) Jean Froissart, French chronicler and writer of amorous and courtly verse.
ratlin rope ladder.
noddy sea bird; tern.
dead-lights shutters inside a porthole.
Castile and Leon rival kingdoms in medieval Spain.
satyr sensual half-man, half-goat of Roman mythology.
San Dominick named for Saint Dominic, founder of the mendicant order of Black Friars, or Dominicans in 1215.
scurvy severe deficiency of vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, which leads to swollen gums, livid flesh, and collapse.
Lascars or Manma men Eastern Indian or Filipino military.
cat-head an iron or wooden beam near the bow from which the anchor is raised and carried.
oakum loose fibers picked from rope and used in caulking.
quarter-deck the section of upper deck between stern and after-mast.
poop the highest deck, at the rear of the ship.
Charles V (1500-88) Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and king of Spain.
anchoritish retirement In 1586, Charles V, a religious mystic, abdicated in favor of his son Philip and retired to a monastery.
mata a substance found in the forests of Brazil which yields a tea that is used as a hallucinogenic drug.
cordial usually a sweet, alcoholic stimulant.
ghetto isolated or segregated area.
begging friar of St. Francis order of humble mendicant priests founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209.