21 August 2020
We present the first of three parts of the short story "Benito Cereno." It was written by Herman Melville. Here is Shep O'Neal with the story.
Captain Benito Cereno hurried aboard his ship. It was ready to sail. A bright sun and a soft breeze promised good weather ahead. The ship's anchor was raised. And the San Dominick -- old but still seaworthy - moved slowly out of the harbor of Valparaiso, on the west coast of Chile. It was carrying valuable products and slaves up the Pacific coast to Callao, another Spanish colonial port near Lima, Peru.
The slaves, both male and female, slept on deck. They were not chained, because their owner, Don Alexandro, said they were peaceful.
The San Dominick moved steadily forward under a clear sky. The weather showed no sign of change. Day after day, the soft breeze kept the ship on course toward Peru.
Slave traffic between Spain's colonial ports in this year of seventeen ninety-nine had been steady. But there were few outbreaks of violence. What happened, therefore, on board the San Dominick could not have been expected.
On the seventh day out, before daybreak, the slaves rose up in rebellion. They swept through the ship with handspikes and hatchets moving with the fury of desperate men. The attack was a complete surprise. Few of the crew were awake. All hands, except the two officers on the watch, lay in a deep untroubled sleep. The rebels sprang upon the two officers and left them half dead. Then, one by one, they killed eighteen of the sleeping crew. They threw some overboard, alive. A few hid and escaped death. The rebels tied up seven others, but left them alive to navigate the ship.
As the day began to break, Captain Cereno came slowly, carefully up the steps toward the chief rebel leader, Babo, and begged for mercy. He promised to follow Babo's commands if he would only put an end to the killings. But this had no effect. Babo had three men brought up on deck and tied. Then, the three Spaniards were thrown overboard. Babo did this to show his power and authority -- that he was in command. Babo, however, promised not to murder Captain Cereno. But everything he said carried a threat. He asked the captain if in these seas there were any Negro countries.*
"None," Cereno answered.
"Then, take us to Senegal or the neighboring islands of Saint Nicholas."
Captain Cereno was shaken. "That is impossible!" he said. "It would mean going around Cape Horn. And this ship is in no condition for such a voyage. And we do not have enough supplies, or sails or water."
"Take us there, anyway," Babo answered sharply, showing little interest in such details. "If you refuse, we will kill every white man on board."
Captain Cereno knew he had no choice. He told the rebel leader that the most serious problem in making such a long voyage was water. Babo said they should sail to the island of Santa Maria near the southern end of Chile. He knew that no one lived on the island. But water and supplies could be found there.
He forced Captain Cereno to keep away from any port. He threatened to kill him the moment he saw him start to move toward any city, town or settlement on shore.
Cereno had to agree to sail to the island of Santa Maria. He still hoped that he might meet along the way, or at the island itself, a ship that could help him. Perhaps -- who knows -- he might find a boat on the island and be able to escape to the nearby coast of Arruco. Hope was all he had left. And that was getting smaller each day.
Captain Cereno steered south for Santa Maria. The voyage would take weeks.
Eight days after the ship turned south, Babo told Captain Cereno that he was going to kill Don Alexandro, owner of the slaves on board. He said it had to be done. Otherwise, he and the other slaves could never be sure of their freedom. He refused to listen to the captain's appeals, and ordered two men to pull Don Alexandro up from below and kill him on deck. It was done as ordered. Three other Spaniards were also brought up and thrown overboard. Babo warned Cereno and the other Spaniards that each one of them would go the same way if any of them gave the smallest cause for suspicion.
Cereno decided to do everything possible to save the lives of those remaining. He agreed to carry the rebels safely to Senegal if they promised peace and no further bloodshed. And he signed a document that gave the rebels ownership of the ship and its cargo.
Later, as they sailed down the long coast of Chile, the wind suddenly dropped. The ship drifted into a deep calm. For days, it lay still in the water. The heat was fierce; the suffering intense. There was little water. That made matters worse. Some of those on board were driven mad. A few died. The pressure and tension made many violent. And they killed a Spanish officer.
After a time, a breeze came up and set the ship free again. And it continued south. The voyage seemed endless. The ship sailed for weeks with little water on board. It moved through days of good weather and periods of bad weather. There were times when it sailed under heavy skies, and times when the wind dropped and the ship lay be-calmed in lifeless air. The crew seemed half dead.
At last, one evening in the month of August, the San Dominick reached the lonely island of Santa Maria. It moved slowly toward one of the island's bays to drop anchor. Not far off lay an American ship. And, the sight of the ship caught the rebels by surprise.
The slaves became tense and fearful. They wanted to sail away, quickly. But their leader, Babo, opposed such a move. Where could they go? Their water and food were low. He succeeded in bringing them under control and in quieting their fears. He told them they had nothing to fear. And they believed him.
Then, he ordered everyone to go to work, to clean the decks and put the ship in proper and good condition, so that no visitor would suspect anything was wrong.
Later, he spoke to Captain Cereno, warning him that he would kill him if he did not do as he was told. He explained in detail what Cereno was to do and say if any stranger came on board. He held a dagger in his hand, saying it would always be ready for any emergency.
The American vessel was a large tradeship and seal hunter, commanded by Captain Amasa Delano. He had stopped at Santa Maria for water.
On the American ship, shortly after sunrise, an officer woke Captain Delano, and told him a strange sail was coming into the bay. The captain quickly got up, dressed and went up on deck. Captain Delano raised his spy glass and looked closely at the strange ship coming slowly in. He was surprised that there was no flag. A ship usually showed its flag when entering a harbor where another ship lay at anchor.
As the ship got closer, Captain Delano saw it was damaged. Many of its sails were ripped and torn. A mast was broken. And the deck was in disorder. Clearly the ship was in trouble.
The American captain decided to go to the strange vessel and offer help. He ordered his whale boat put into the water, and had his men bring up some supplies and put them in the boat. Then they set out toward the mystery ship.
As they approached, Captain Delano was shocked at the poor condition of the ship. He wondered what could have happened. . . And what he would find. That will be our story next week.
Download activities to help you understand this story here.
Words in This Story
suspicion - n. a feeling that something bad is likely or true
handspike - n. a wooden rod with an iron tip, used as a lever on board ship and by artillery soldiers.
hatchet - n. a small ax that has a short handle
authority - n. the power to give orders or make decisions
intense - adj. very great in degree; very strong
disorder - n. a confused or messy state; a lack of order or organization