Melville’s Changes from Delono’s Diary


This excerpt is taken from Lea B.V. Newman’s book, A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville.

“He changes:

  • the date from February 1805 to August 1799
  • the name of the Spanish slaveship from the Tryal to the San Dominick and of the American ship from the Perseverance to the Bachelor’s Delight.
  • the stature of the Spanish ship, enlarging the number of crew members and of slaves.
  • The single reference to a hatchet-weapon to cases of them.
  • The fate of Aranda, the Spanish shipowner, from being thrown overboard to being stripped of his flesh and displayed as a skeleton in the bowsprit.
  • The identity of the Negro posing as Cereno’s personal slave from Muri (also spelled Mure) to his father, Babo.
  • The leadership of the Negro revolt (the source originally names Babo as the “ring leader,” then subsequently refers to Muri as the “captain and commander”; Melville focuses on Babo alone as the leader).
  • Cereno’s situation on board the Spanish ship so that he remains alone without any of his crew.
  • The monetary reward promised to the American sailors for subduing the mutinists from the primary motivation to an added incentive by having Cereno make the offer after their preparations for the pursuit were completed.
  • The identity of the Spanish sailor who is prevented from stabbing a shackled slave (a fictional Bartholomew Barlo replaces Benito Cereno as the perpetrator of this dishonorable act).

He adds:

  • the description of the Spanish ship as decayed.
  • The sternpiece on which a dark satyr in a mask tramples a writhing figure, also masked.
  • The shrouded figure head with the words “Sequid vuestro jefe” (follow your leader) chalked below it.
  • The oakum-pickers and the hatchet-polishers.
  • The appearance of Atufal in chains.
  • The slumbering Negress nursing her infant.
  • The attack of the two Negroes upon the Spanish seaman.
  • The glimpse of the sailor with the jewel.
  • The incident of the sailor and the Gordian knot.
  • The shaving of Cereno by Babo.
  • The luncheon on board the Spanish ship presided over by the mulatto steward.
  • Babo’s leap into Delano’s boat, his attempt to stab Cereno, and his capture by Delano.
  • The revelation of the skeleton as the figurehead under the shroud.
  • The final retrospective conversation between Delano and Cereno.
  • Cereno’s confinement in the Hospital de Sacerdotes attended by the monk Infelez, his subsequent retirement to a monastery on Mount Agonia, and his death three months later.
  • a total of about twenty thousand words enlarging Delano’s chapter of approximately fourteen thousand words to some thirty-four thousand.

He omits:

  • the problems Delano had been experiencing, both with the voyage’s financial returns and with his crew, seventeen of whom had deserted in Botany Bay and had been replaced by convict stowaways.
  • Cereno’s refusal to join the boarding party to recover his ship and his subsequent attempt to stab one of the captured slaves.
  • The second half of Delano’s narrative, which deals with the quarrel between the two captains over salvage rights, with Cereno’s efforts to have Delano convicted of piracy, even going as far as bribing three of the convict-crewmen to testify against their captain, and with Delano’s bitterness over Cereno’s ingratitude and betrayal.

But he retains:

  • the names of Amasa Delano and Benito Cereno (which in his own account Delano spells “Bonito” repeatedly and “Sereno” the only time it occurs; he consistently uses “Benito Cereno” in his “officially translated” documents).
  • the initial appearance of the Spanish ship pursuing a meandering and erratic course into the harbor, with no colors showing and its decks swarming with a distressed horde in which blacks outnumbered whites.
  • The Negroes’ revolt on the Spanish slaveship.
  • The use of the black manservant to prevent Cereno from revealing the revolt to Delano.
  • The Negroes’ plot to attack the American ship.
  • The device of appending legal depositions to support the truth of the events recounted” (Newman 98-100).

Work Cited

Newman, Lea. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co. 1986.


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