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 an island near Chile. They spot another ship coming toward the island, floating rather listlessly. Delano decides to take a boat over and investigate.

He and his men reach the ship, the San Dominick. Delano boards the ship, and immediately he is accosted by both sailors and Black slaves, all begging for water and supplies. He sends his men back to his own ship for supplies and tries to find out what happened to the San Dominick. He meets its captain, Benito Cereno. Cereno seems strange, very nervous and somewhat aloof. His behavior constantly puzzles Delano. Cereno is constantly attended by Babo, his young Black servant, who helps Cereno when he has fainting spells. Delano is a kind man, so he persuades himself that Cereno's behavior is a result of the troubles he has suffered.

Cereno tells him that the ship had left Buenos Aires six months earlier. While rounding Cape Horn, they struck heavy winds, so to lighten the ship they threw supplies overboard, including much of their fresh water. While telling this story, Cereno has one of his many coughing fits, which makes Delano believe that Cereno is both sick and perhaps mentally troubled. Cereno finishes the story, claiming that the ship spent months on the sea with no wind, and that all the officers and most of the crew died from scurvy. He concludes by praising Babo as his faithful companion through it all.

Delano tells Cereno he will help him reach the nearest port. This briefly cheers up Cereno, but Babo draws him aside, and when Cereno returns he is again morose. As Delano investigates the ship, he begins to have suspicious feelings. He sees a young slave hit a white cabin boy, and chides Cereno for allowing this to happen. Cereno makes no effort to punish the attacker. Delano inquires as to the owner of the slaves; Cereno says that they belonged to Alexander Aranda, a friend of Cereno's who died of the fever.

Cereno rather rudely begins whispering with his servant. Delano believes he is the subject of their conversation. He wonders if Cereno is actually some low- born adventurer, masquerading as a ship captain, perhaps planning to murder Delano and then take his ship. But the good-natured Delano dismisses the idea, even after Cereno asks him some suspicious questions, such as how many men his ship holds and whether they would be present on it that night.

Delano again dismisses his suspicions as silly, but he witnesses several strange events, including two Black men pushing a sailor to the ground. Cereno always ignores these incidents or brushes them off. Delano thinks the Spanish sailors are giving him meaningful glances. He tries to question them, but the slaves crowd them out. Delano questions Cereno further and, when he mentions Cape Horn, Cereno responds, “Who spoke of Cape Horn?” Cereno corrects himself, but Delano's suspicions are further aroused. Delano has lunch with Cereno, and is annoyed that Cereno refuses to dismiss Babo so they can talk in private.

The wind returns, and Delano pilots the San Dominick to his own ship. Delano calls for a boat to be lowered from his ship with supplies for the San Dominick. The supplies are delivered, and Delano prepares to leave the San Dominick. Just as he gets into his boat, Cereno leaps over the side of the San Dominick and falls at the captain's feet. Babo also leaps over, with a dagger in his hands. Delano's men stop Babo. Delano realizes that Babo intended to stab Cereno, not himself.

Delano sends his men to recover the ship. The rest of the story consists mostly of Cereno's court deposition, revealing the truth about the San Dominick.

The slaves had revolted, led by Babo and Atufal, killing most of the Spanish crew and taking control of the ship. They forced Cereno to sail toward Senegal, where they planned to escape. But they needed supplies. Babo would not let Cereno come to a port that would put the ship in view of people, so he chose to sail to the island of Santa Maria. He told Babo he was planning on getting supplies, but in actuality he hoped a passing vessel would save them. In the meantime, the slaves killed their owner and master, Alexandro Aranda, and hung his corpse on the figurehead to serve as a warning to the other sailors (this was covered before Delano came to the ship). When the Bachelor's Delight came near, Babo gave Cereno a story to tell, as well as the other sailors, then set up the masquerade of himself as a servant to Cereno, so as to keep an eye on him. Cereno and all the sailors were threatened with instant death if they give anything away. Cereno struggled between wanting to tell Delano the truth and the constant threat of Babo. Finally, he leapt overboard into Delano's boat, thus ending the charade.

At the end of the trial, Babo is executed and his head placed on a pole. Cereno falls into a deep depression, and a few months later he dies. He did indeed “follow his leader.”