In "Benito Cereno," the narrator is Amasa Delano, the captain of a Massachusetts whaling ship. When the story begins, Captain Delano and his ship, the Bachelor's Delight, are anchored off the island of Santa Maria. The Delight is a sealer, or whaling ship. While anchored, the crew spots another ship coming toward the island. The new ship seems to be floating rather listlessly, and her sails are torn. Delano decides to send a boat over to investigate.
He and his men reach the ship, which they see is called the San Dominick. The ship looks weather-beaten and decrepit. The figurehead of the ship is covered by canvas, but chalked underneath are the words (in Spanish), "follow your leader." Delano becomes fascinated by the mystery the ship presents. He boards the ship, and he is immediately accosted by sailors and black slaves, all begging for water and supplies. Delano orders his crew back to his own ship to get supplies, then tries to figure out what's happened to the San Dominick. He meets the ship's captain, Benito Cereno. Cereno seems a strange man, very nervous and strangely aloof; his behavior confuses Delano. Delano wonders if Cereno is an aristocrat who was given command of a ship, even though he doesn't seem to be a very good captain. But Delano is a patient and forgiving man, so he persuades himself that Cereno's behavior is a result of the trouble Cereno and his ship have suffered.
Cereno is constantly attended by Babo, his young black servant. Delano asks Cereno to explain what happened to the San Dominick. Briefly, Cereno falters, staring down at the deck. Annoyed, Delano goes to ask a sailor for the story, but Cereno abruptly speaks up. He tells Delano that the ship had left Buenos Aires six months earlier, bound for Lima. While rounding Cape Horn, they struck heavy winds, Cereno claims, and to lighten the ship they threw supplies overboard, including their containers of fresh water. While telling this story, Cereno has one of his many near-fainting spells, which makes Delano believe that Cereno is both sick and perhaps mentally troubled. Whenever he has these spells, Babo catches his master in his arms. Cereno continues the story, brokenly: the San Dominick rounded Cape Horn, but the ship was badly damaged, and many of the ship's crew became sick with scurvy and died, including every officer. The ship was then blown into the deep seas, where the wind suddenly died out, leaving the ship adrift and with little water. Since then, Cereno claims he had continually attempted to reach land, but had always been prevented from doing so by bad weather or bad seamanship by the remaining sailors. He adds that the slaves' owners were "quite right" in claiming that it was safe to allow the slaves to roam free on the deck, without chains. Cereno ends by praising his servant Babo, whom he credits with keeping the slaves pacified during all the problems. Delano also praises Babo, saying he envies that Cereno has such a faithful friend. Delano is particularly struck by the image of the pleasant, strong black slave upholding the weak, well-dressed white captain.
"Benito Cereno" is, like "Bartleby the Scrivener," one of Melville's most hotly debated short stories. But unlike "Bartleby," where interpretation of the story's essential meaning is the main area of interest, "Benito Cereno" owes much of its popularity among literary critics to its subject matter: slavery. "Benito" is Melville's only work of fiction that deals directly with slavery. Therefore, it is bothersome to Melville scholars that the story is so maddeningly enigmatic. As critic Warner Berthoff has pointed out, figuring out Melville's attitude is nearly impossible—one could fairly argue that his attitude is forgiving, patronizing, or contemptuous of blacks and/or slavery. Like much of Melville's work, the popular interpretations of "Benito" have changed depending on the political and academic atmosphere of each critic.
The historical incident that "Benito Cereno" is based on is very similar to the one that Steven Spielberg's film Amistad was based upon. The film's plot is entirely sympathetic to the slaves. Their masters are shown to be cruel monsters who deserved their deaths, and the slaves are portrayed as righteous freedom fighters who want nothing more than to return home. Imagine if Spielberg had tried to make a film where the black slaves are the bad guys and the slavers, heroically defending themselves with pistols and rifles against the swords and hatchets of the slaves, are the good guys. In the 1990s, when Amistad was made, such a movie would have drawn massive protests—Spielberg would have been run out of the country. But "Benito Cereno," published in 1855 (during a time of great political turmoil over the issue of slavery, six years before the Civil War), provides that very scenario: the slaves, who are portrayed as both brutal and cunning, revolt against their masters and are thwarted by the efforts of well-armed white men. However, few critics believe that "Benito Cereno" is a pro-slavery story. Few men in America had had more contact with indigenous foreigners, living in their native homes of Africa or the Polynesian Islands, than Melville. Melville's brutally cunning slaves may have been somewhat inspired by his experiences living amongst cannibals, but Melville was also a product of New England, of Massachusetts and of the Transcendentalist movement—he was in the center of abolitionist activity, and he was never known to trouble his literary friends by expressing pro-slavery attitudes. It seems highly unlikely that in "Benito Cereno" Melville was deliberately trying to portray blacks as being rightly condemned to slavery; rather, it is an intriguing exploration of the relationship between blacks and whites. The story is surprisingly modern in its contemplation of racism, more than a hundred years before the civil rights movement.
The protagonist of "Benito Cereno" is not really Captain Delano—his character does not really change in the course of the story, other than his awakening to the true relationship of Cereno and the slaves. Rather, the protagonist is Cereno himself, who falls under "the shadow of the Negro" in the course of the tale, eventually leading to his death. But upon a first reading, until the very end, it seems almost certain that the story is going to be Delano's, and Cereno will be revealed to be some sort of villain. "Benito" is a story that almost demands to be read twice, after the "surprise ending" has been revealed. By re-reading the story, the reader can properly understand Cereno's behavior in any given situation. The reader understands why Cereno's eyes go glassy for a moment when Delano asks him what has happened to his ship; Cereno is trying to remember the story Babo told him. When Babo shows Cereno the bloody razor, the reader understands his terror—Babo is threatening him.