“Follow Your Leader” – Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”


I’ve never been a big fan of the traditional mystery genre. I have certainly read some books that were good mysteries, but the exercise of reading with the intent of determining “whodunit” doesn’t appeal to me as the best way to spend my reading time. This bias of mine does not apply, however, to a certain class of novel that is something akin to a mystery. I’m speaking of novels in which the reader is from the start cast into unknown circumstances and must be patient as things are slowly revealed to him. Herman Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” is such a novel – or I guess technically a novella, as it checks in at only about 75 pages.


I first read Benito Cereno back in 1992, together in a volume along with several other of Melville’s shorter works. The other two I still remember are “The Encantadas” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” (the latter of which I’ve posted about previously). I remember way back then being confused by Benito Cereno, and when I recently re-read it I could easily see why. It’s a mystery of sorts, not so much of a whodunit as a “whodunwhat.”

Based on “actual events” in the early 1800’s, Melville’s story was published in serial form in 1855, and it should be read with the historical context of that time in mind. A time when the struggle between anti- and pro-slavery forces was nearing the fever pitch that culminated in the U.S. Civil War. The story is of an American sea captain, Amasa Delano, at a remote port in southern Chile. While there, a nearly derelict Spanish vessel, the San Dominick is spotted, erratically making its way into the harbor. Delano takes a small boat out to encounter it, possibly to offer assistance, and there meets its captain, the eponymous Benito Cereno.

On board, Delano is met by a rag-tag crew featuring both Spaniards and African slaves. All are nearly starving and beg for supplies. Clearly something is not quite right in this unusual social amalgam. Delano, however, struggles to grasp what might be amiss. An extremely frustrating character, many things are obvious to the reader long before they are to Delano, who continues to take Cereno and his black servant, Babo, at their word when, to most, suspicion and a skeptical reaction would seem to be the order of the day. There is undoubtedly some great writing along the way in the book, as the truth is slowly revealed, and Melville also deftly handles a great, climactic scene that kept this reader on the edge of his seat.

I feel, however, that, since I’ve labeled this work a mystery of sorts, I shouldn’t reveal the details of the true story of the San Dominick. I will reveal the source of the “Follow Your Leader” quote from the title of this post, though. When Delano first boards the ship, he notices that the figurehead on the ship’s prow is covered with canvas and only the ship’s inscription “follow your leader” is visible. Check the illustration above to see what lay hidden under the canvas…

Have you read Benito Cereno, or other shorter works by Melville? What did you think of them?

Benito Cereno may be read for free online at http://www.esp.org/books/melville/piazza/contents/cereno.html

It is also one of many available audiobooks free via the “Free Audio Books” app for the iPhone/iPad.

(Below:  from Wikipedia)