'The Slave Ship'
An anonymous poem published in The Greenock Advertiser in 1846
A sail is on the waters—far away from any land,
Where ocean doth in all his might and majesty expand,
The middle deep, where land-bird's wing hath never, never flown.
A thousand leagues on every hand,—"a thousand fathoms down;"
Where morn beholds the sun arise in glory from the deep,
And evening sees him sink again, beneath the wave to sleep;
And all that meet's the gazer's sight is sea, sea, sea and sky,
In one vast circle,—circling him like an eternity.
And what is she, the lonely ship that through the calm doth seem,
With slow and shadowy motion, like the spirit of a dream;
Or, as a giant Nautilus, spreading its flimsy sail,
White as the snow-wing'd Albatross, to woo the uncoming gale?
In sooth she is a lovely craft, as ever seaman's eye
Would wish to rest on, and admire for perfect symmetry,—
The lines of beauty, through her build, appear in every streak:
Oh! in a skilful seaman's hand she would do all but speak.
And yet that outward beauty hides, as doth the leopard's skin,
Or the angel mask that shrouds a fiend, the hell that lurks within;
She is a pirate slaver: and yon beauty of the sea
Is burden'd with a freight of crime and awful misery.
Nine days, long days of breathless calm, has she been rotting there,
A floating mass of wretchedness, of madness, and despair;
And sharers of a fearful doom, their victims and her crew
Are chained to the same loathsome tomb, as to the deep they grew.
She lay a log upon the wave, the sun was burning down
Red hot, upon that living grave, with vengeance in his frown,
Where the scourged, chained, and sickening slave, into fierce madness grown,
Prayed, oh, in agony he prayed! only for leave to drown.
And there with fin above the brine—the tiger of the sea—
The great blue shark, in shoals supine, gazed on them glaringly,
Expectants of the coming feast,—for well their instincts told,
Another day, and they would share from out the slaver's hold.
That dreadful hold, Oh ! could the men who deem the trade no sin,
The princes of the western world, have had one look within,
To see a miniature of hell—the hell beyond the grave,
They would have struck for ever there the fetters from the slave.
Five hundred souls were packed and stowed, burning in every pore;
Between two decks whose utmost height was barely three foot four;
Some gasped in silent agony, some raved, some wept, some swore,
And some were past all misery, because they felt no more.
Another day of scorching calm, their water almost done,
Thirst! thirst! intolerable thirst! and death his work begun;
Death, mercy's angel, with his touch to free them from their pain;
And send the chainless spirit back to Afric's graves again.
It is not always terrible—so terrible to die,
When sufferings lengthen moments out to an eternity;
And if the fiend could choose a spot on torture to refine,
That spot would be a slavery's hold, becalmed upon the line,
For every form of wretchedness the mind can well conceive
Is there, and some the Soul itself would tremble to believe.
A son had pierced his father's arm, what will not frenzy dare?
He drained the stream that gave him life, to quench his thirst's despair;
And then, as if for the dark deed of horror to atone,
He bit his bloody wrist, and let the deck drink in his own.
A mother—in the after hold, from whom her infant child
For days had sucked the blood, and then, looked in her face and smiled,
The dearest link in nature's tie, she in her madness tore,
And like a vampire bathed her lip in her own offspring's gore.
But on such offerings even in thought the heart grows sick to dwell,
Horrors too hard to be believed—too horrible to tell.
Our nature is a mystery; for oft in darkest hour
Bright glimpses of past happiness will on the spirit pour,
Like sunshine on a sinking wreck, late, all too late to save!
Yet gilding for a while the gloom that hovers o'er the grave;
And here, that spirit-cheering gleam, even in a charnel hold,
Shone into one devoted heart, whose tale is shortly told.
Though now a slave of slaves, he was a prince in his own land,
A noble one of nature's own, in soul, and heart, and hand,
With fever on his trembling lips, and boiling in his brain.
Even in the spirit's half eclipse, he scorned him to complain;
Yet do not deem him hard of heart, to nature's promptings sear,
No "stoic of the woods" was he—no "man without a tear;"
Yet when a sigh escaped his breast, 'twas no unmanly moan,
But for the woes his tribe endured, far more than for his own.
He thought upon the happy time, when they were free to roam
Their gorgeous woods. and golden clime—an Eden for a home,—
Ere Europe's demon-demi-god—the accursed calf of gold,
Said, let man's soul, and flesh, and blood, be chained, and bought and sold,—
Ere yet the scourge of angry Heaven—the Christian savage came
To desolate their lovely lands with Europe's curse and shame,
To sever every link of life, to sunder every tie,
And write in blood on history's page one monstrous mighty lie.
Anon, a softer shade of thought came stealing o'er his brain,
And for a while, the slave forgot his tyrants and his chain,
As memory stole his mind away from the surrounding scene,
Till he forgot all he was now, in what he once had been;
He lived again the blessed years, when all beneath the palm
He sported amid bowers of bloom, and breathed an air of balm,
When joyous parents smiled on him, bright and happy child,
And God and nature, heaven and earth, around their dwelling smiled;
He felt, again he felt, the thrill, that bade young love awake,
Like the first ripple of the breeze upon his native lake;
He saw, again he saw the maid—the wife—he loved so dear,
And his own child, and his dark cheek confess'd a burning tear—
When hark! a trampling overhead, of some new woe to tell,
Awoke him to his misery, and rudely broke the spell.
When the twelfth sun had just arose above the horizon's brim,
A line of darkness stretched along beneath his nether limb;
And those whom years had taught to read the signs of sea and sky,
Knew that the longed and prayed-for breeze at length was drawing nigh;
And only they, who long have lain upon a breezeless sea,
Beneath the tropic's sun, can know a breeze's luxury.
Fast rose the sun, and as he rose, was heard the look-out's hail—
On deck there! right in the sun's wake, I see a lofty sail;
And every eye of the wild crew to that one point did strain,
For well they knew they well deserved to share the curse of Cain.
Like him, they had broke in upon both God and nature's plan,
Their hands were against men—'gainst them the hand of every man;
And as the coming breeze bore on that cloud of sail and spar,
A nearer view sufficed to shew she was a ship of war.
"Out sweeps!"* with voice of fury then the savage captain roared,
"Off hatches —the sick slaves—be quick, and toss them overboard.
With spars, and boats from off the booms, and anchors from the bow,
And bear a hand! we must get rid of all such lumber now;
Come down good breeze! my cargo for't, if once the sails but draw.
We'll shew the lion how we can escape from out his paw."
His orders are obeyed like thought, man, woman, infant, child,
Are struggling tossed—bound pair and pair—shrieking in horror wild—
Into the wave; as little recked their agonizing scream,
As that of drowning vermin thrown by schoolboys in a stream.
A flash, a shock, a whizzing sound, a crash, and then the dull
Dead crashing of the raking shot, throughout the slaver's hull;
A moment of suspended breath —and then, O God! a yell,
As if within that fearful hold lurked all the fiends of hell,
And some tremendous punishment were passing on them there.
While vented, in that bursting shriek, their measureless despair.
"The iron shower" has sped in vain, her sails have caught the wind,
And like the stag, she leaves her strong pursuer far behind,
And long before the god of day has faded in the west,
The slaver bounds along, alone, upon the ocean's breast.
Onward she sped, each weary day but only served to bring
Upon the heads of those she bore augmented suffering,
Till of the hundreds who embarked, a miserable few
Gaunt skeletons from the old world were landed on the new;
And on the mart for human flesh, like very brutes were ranged,
Where man's own blood and bone for gold and silver are exchanged;
And the exhausted energy their worn out strength denied.
The unsparing and unfailing lash abundantly supplied.
Oh, Slavery! fell Slavery, of all the plagues accurst
That man upon his kind hath wrought and brought, thou art the worst,
The scandal of a Christian age—of an enlightened time—
The fertile source of every shade and shape of horrid crime;
A blot on nature's face—a stain of darker, deeper die,
Than lives in the records of guilt—a moral leprosy.
High Heaven in mercy speed the hour! grant soon the time to be,
When man in body, speech, and thought, shall o'er the world be free;
When slavery, and war. and woe, for evermore shall cease,
And nature to her farthest verge shall clap her hands in peace,
When love shall reign supreme—the law of Him who came to save,
And earth shall know no despot—the world contain no slave.
* Large oars used by armed ships in a calm.
A Note on the Text
Publication and Authorship: The poem was published by The Greenock Advertiser, Scotland, on 20 February 1846, p.4. The author signed the poem with the initials 'R.L.M.' but his or her identity is as yet unknown. The poem was reproduced in Boston the following year in the 2 April 1847 edition of The Liberator, but without any additional information. Please get in touch if you think you may know the identity of the author.
Edition: This online edition was prepared by Professor Bruce Baker of Newcastle University.