Melville's novella was first printed in Putnam's Magazine in October, November, and December of 1855. Like "Bartleby the Scrivener," Benito Cereno was later incorporated into the Piazza Tales collection. The immediate source for Melville's story of mutiny on a slave ship was chapter 18 of Amasa Delano's Narrative of Voyages in Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres (1817). Melville's story is fictional adaptation of Delano's account. Among other chances, Melville changed the date of the mutiny from 1805 to 1799 in order to remind readers of Haitian revolutionary Touissant L'ouverture. Putnam's had recently published an article which referenced Touissant and Santo Domingo, associations which were"a slap in the face to southerners for whom Santo Domingo conjured memories of the slave rebellions and massacres perpetrated by Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser in the 1830s." (Source: Lorant, biography of Melville)
When Melville submitted "Benito Cereno" to Putnam's, G.W. Curtis (who had a hand in editing the magazine, though had declined the chief editorship) is to have famously criticized the inclusion of portions of Cereno's deposition accounts at the end of "Benito Cereno"as evidence of laziness and hurry on the author's part. This was to become a repeated critique of "Benito Cereno," but as critics have since pointed out, the deposition at the end actually a brilliant, carefully considered hybrid of Melville's own prose and portions of the original deposition.
The story is told through a third-person narrator up until the excerpted deposition of Benito Cereno at the very end. Yet, the narration has the odd feature of frequently focalizing on Delano's thoughts; through frequent free indirect discourse, the narrator and Delano seem to merge.
While sailing around the coast of Chile, Delano and his trade ship encounter a strange ship which he supposes might be a ship in distress. As they approach, Delano and his crew recognize the ship to be a Spanish slave ship called the San Dominick in great disrepair and rusty old world ornamentation. Delano boards the San Dominick to see if he might help, and discovers that it's captain, Benito Cereno, crew, and slaves seem to be in bad shape. Delano can't account for Cereno, try as he might--he doesn't understand, for example, the excessive subservience of Cereno's trusted slave, Babo. Cereno hardly seems like a leader, yet it appears that everything is in order. Cereno offers Delano a detailed story of how they had set sail 190 days ago from Buenos Aires, meeting with heavy gales off Cape Horn and losing many officers and sailors in the gale. After these losses, the San Dominick, according to Cereno, experienced more losses to a plague of scurvy. When Delano arrives, they are in dire need of food, water, and supplies.
There is, all the while, the sense that something is not quite right: Delano, an upright American Protestant, sometimes imagines that Cereno the Catholic Spaniard is going to kill him, but out of his also American good-nature and rationality, expunges such thoughts from his mind. The distance which the narrator maintains from Delano clearly signals irony, though the reader is not privy, on a first reading, to what has actually happened on the San Dominick.
Among the strange episodes which Delano cannot parse include an interaction with a large African by the name of Atufal, who wears chains and has supposedly been subordinate to Cereno in the past. Atufal is to come before Cereno's presence every two hours and will not be released until he asks Cereno for pardon. Delano finds it odd that such a powerful, looming figure as Atufal might be subservient to someone as gloomy, thin, and nervous as Cereno. In yet another famous episode, Babo gives Cereno a shave, and when Babo's razor gets close to Cereno's neck and head, Delano fancies violence for a moment, but again (as he is good-natured), dismisses the notion. When Babo nicks Cereno's neck on accident, Babo is excessively subservient, and Delano feels like the whole scene is like some sort of play, but again, dismisses such notions from his mind because they were supposedly irrational.
Of course, at the end it is revealed that both Atufal's chains and Babo's shave are in fact acts, and that the San Dominick was a ship controlled by slaves who had revolted. This is revealed to Delano when he goes back to his own ship, slightly peeved that Cereno had inhospitably refused his help, and Cereno jumps aboard with him. Immediately, a revolted slave jumps on board as well and tries to kill Cereno with a dagger. Meantime, the ghastly skeleton of Cereno's partner, Alexandro Aranda is revealed from beneath a canvas on the hull, accompanied by the words, "Follow Your Leader" in chalk. These words were supposed to remind the Spanish sailors that if they made any mistep, they would "follow" Aranda. The rest of the narrative action tells how Delano and his crew finally help Cereno regain the ship. Finally, the hybrid deposition (as mentioned above in the publication history) of Cereno is given as if giving him the last word, but the narrator closes with an afterword on Babo's strong, silent bearing before his trial and death, and Cereno's death soon after, a weakened man who finally did "follow his leader."
Benito Cereno is truly a masterful feat of irony--as Eric Sundquist describes, Delano's inability to understand what is truly happening creates several layers of irony. At times, Cereno thinks that Delano is being ironic or satirical, but in fact Delano is not (as the narrator remarks, he is incapable of satire and irony). For example, when Delano sees Atufal and says, "So...padlock and key--significant symbols, truly," Delano means nothing more than his perception of the Spaniard's authority over the slave, but for a moment, Cereno thinks that Delano might know and was mocking him for no longer having control over the slaves. Of course, a further dramatic irony inheres in Delano's not having any idea what is happening. The first-time reader, too, is not likely to have totally understood this dramatic irony, but again, the distance between the narrator and Delano signals to the reader that there is, in fact, dramatic irony. This is what Sundquist calls "irony without retort," a tense, "tautological" irony which can't be "released" through complete understandings until the end of the account. According to Sundquist, this unreleased irony is what delivers the "dread" which controls the narrative.
What then, is the function of this controlling irony to Melville's seemingly scathing critique of upright northerners in America? Delano is frustratingly dense, and his "good intentions," Protestant biases, and overly rosy view of Africans as somehow naturalistic (cf. Delano's thoughts on the motherly negresses on the ship) are beyond just funny--the darkness and the "dread" of this kind of irony suggests that such ignorance has dreadful consequences (i.e., the Civil War, as Sundquist suggests). Thus, Sundquist's analysis situates Benito Cereno within the historical anxiety of the mid 1850's, and kind of makes Melville a prophet of sorts.