Summary and Analysis
Safely alongside the Bachelor's Delight, Don Benito identifies the fleshless form nailed to the bow of theSan Dominick as the remains of Aranda, murdered and unburied. Babo is bound and taken below deck. Cereno does not board until his nemesis is removed from sight.
The Americans pick up the three swimming Spaniards, then fire six times at the San Dominick until it glides out of range. Planning an assault on the slave ship, the Americans pursue in whale-boat and yawl. Cereno assures them that there are no working firearms available, but pleads that they not rile the desperadoes, who are intent on massacring the whites. He begs Delano not to throw away his life.
The athletic and resolute chief mate, hearing that the San Dominick and its valuable cargo are free for the taking, leads a willing party against the blacks, who have no weapons other than hatchets. He calls to the Spanish boys aloft in the slave ship and has them cut the sails loose; the ship becomes unmanageable. In ensuing volleys, Atufal and three Spaniards fall dead.
The mate leads the sealers aboard. Hand-to-hand combat moves from gunwales to a barricade of casks and sacks. The Americans overtake the revolting blacks, except for nearly twenty who are killed in the battle. By midnight, the surviving slaves are returned to custody and the Spanish trader towed to harbor. Within two days, the two ships sail for Concepcion, Chile, and then on to Lima, Peru. A vice-regal court investigates the matter. Cereno, suffering a relapse shortly before reaching Lima, retires to one of Lima's religious hostels for care.
Greed, a major element motivating the conflict of the novel, entices Aranda to his undoing and severely cripples Cereno, who eventually succumbs to the mortal wounds inflicted by his harrowing misadventure. The Spanish, dealing in slaves as matter-of-factly as they load containers of hatchets, anticipate profit from trade in Peru. Cereno, who follows his friend in the hellish business, naively anticipates that the voyage will proceed without hindrance, even with the unshackled natives allowed their freedom on board. Elated after gaining power over their captors, the piratical blacks are cheered by the return to Senegal, but they, too, exult at the prospect of owning the ship and the remaining cargo.
At the climax of the story, the goods again change hands. This time, Cereno gives up the San Dominick as a lost cause and urges Delano's men, "Take her, and no small part should be [yours]." The Americans, shouting their glee, rush to capture the vessel by moonlight. The hard-fought battle exacts its costs — one sailor loses his fingers to the blow of a hatchet; some are wounded, but none are killed except some Spaniards who are shot in error because the Americans perceive them as turncoats.
A peripheral theme — the inherent right of liberty — seems obscured in the shuffle. The American sailors, suffering no real threat from Atufal and the other escaping Ashanti crewmen, throw themselves into the assault out of a materialistic interest in the San Dominick's riches. The blacks, on the other hand, have their freedom to protect as they attempt to elude the pursuing Americans. Melville provides a brief image of their desperation by describing how "their red tongues lolled, wolf-like, from their black mouths." His emphasis on their bestiality detracts from their humanity, which throughout the novel is overshadowed by their criminality.
bowsprit a spar projecting from the ship's bow.
yawl a ship's small boat, or jolly-boat, used for ferrying small groups to and from the ship.
privateer's-man naval mercenary.
handspikes foot-long wooden levers, covered with iron and resembling long pegs.
Preston Pans a Scottish resort.
His Majesty's Notary for the Royal Revenue the King's agent authorized to draw up and attest to contracts and other important papers.