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Anti-Slavery Poems
The Slave-Ships

by John Greenleaf Whittier

"That fatal, that perfidious bark,
Built I' the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark."
                          MILTON'S Lycidas.    

"The French ship Le Rodeur, with a crew of twenty-two men, and with one
hundred and sixty negro slaves, sailed from Bonny, in Africa, April,
1819. On approaching the line, a terrible malady broke out,--an
obstinate disease of the eyes,--contagious, and altogether beyond the
resources of medicine. It was aggravated by the scarcity of water among
the slaves (only half a wine-glass per day being allowed to an
individual), and by the extreme impurity of the air in which they
breathed. By the advice of the physician, they were brought upon deck
occasionally; but some of the poor wretches, locking themselves in each
other's arms, leaped overboard, in the hope, which so universally
prevails among them, of being swiftly transported to their own homes in
Africa. To check this, the captain ordered several who were stopped in
the attempt to be shot, or hanged, before their companions. The disease
extended to the crew; and one after another were smitten with it, until
only one remained unaffected. Yet even this dreadful condition did not
preclude calculation: to save the expense of supporting slaves rendered
unsalable, and to obtain grounds for a claim against the underwriters,
thirty-six of the negroes, having become blind, were thrown into the sea
and drowned!" Speech of M. Benjamin Constant, in the French Chamber of
Deputies, June 17, 1820.

In the midst of their dreadful fears lest the solitary individual, whose
sight remained unaffected, should also be seized with the malady, a sail
was discovered. It was the Spanish slaver, Leon. The same disease had
been there; and, horrible to tell, all the crew had become blind! Unable
to assist each other, the vessels parted. The Spanish ship has never
since been heard of. The Rodeur reached Guadaloupe on the 21st of June;
the only man who had escaped the disease, and had thus been enabled to
steer the slaver into port, caught it in three days after its arrival.--
Bibliotheque Ophthalmologique for November, 1819.

"All ready?" cried the captain;
"Ay, ay!" the seamen said;
"Heave up the worthless lubbers,--
The dying and the dead."
Up from the slave-ship's prison
Fierce, bearded heads were thrust:
"Now let the sharks look to it,--
Toss up the dead ones first!"

Corpse after corpse came up,
Death had been busy there;
Where every blow is mercy,
Why should the spoiler spare?
Corpse after corpse they cast
Sullenly from the ship,
Yet bloody with the traces
Of fetter-link and whip.

Gloomily stood the captain,
With his arms upon his breast,
With his cold brow sternly knotted,
And his iron lip compressed.

"Are all the dead dogs over?"
Growled through that matted lip;
"The blind ones are no better,
Let's lighten the good ship."

Hark! from the ship's dark bosom,
The very sounds of hell!
The ringing clank of iron,
The maniac's short, sharp yell!
The hoarse, low curse, throat-stifled;
The starving infant's moan,
The horror of a breaking heart
Poured through a mother's groan.

Up from that loathsome prison
The stricken blind ones cane
Below, had all been darkness,
Above, was still the same.
Yet the holy breath of heaven
Was sweetly breathing there,
And the heated brow of fever
Cooled in the soft sea air.

"Overboard with them, shipmates!"
Cutlass and dirk were plied;
Fettered and blind, one after one,
Plunged down the vessel's side.
The sabre smote above,
Beneath, the lean shark lay,
Waiting with wide and bloody jaw
His quick and human prey.

God of the earth! what cries
Rang upward unto thee?
Voices of agony and blood,
From ship-deck and from sea.
The last dull plunge was heard,
The last wave caught its stain,
And the unsated shark looked up
For human hearts in vain.

   . . . . . . . . . . . .

Red glowed the western waters,
The setting sun was there,
Scattering alike on wave and cloud
His fiery mesh of hair.
Amidst a group in blindness,
A solitary eye
Gazed, from the burdened slaver's deck,
Into that burning sky.

"A storm," spoke out the gazer,
"Is gathering and at hand;
Curse on 't, I'd give my other eye
For one firm rood of land."
And then he laughed, but only
His echoed laugh replied,
For the blinded and the suffering
Alone were at his side.

Night settled on the waters,
And on a stormy heaven,
While fiercely on that lone ship's track
The thunder-gust was driven.
"A sail!--thank God, a sail!"
And as the helmsman spoke,
Up through the stormy murmur
A shout of gladness broke.


Down came the stranger vessel,
Unheeding on her way,
So near that on the slaver's deck
Fell off her driven spray.
"Ho! for the love of mercy,
We're perishing and blind!"
A wail of utter agony
Came back upon the wind.

"Help us! for we are stricken
With blindness every one;
Ten days we've floated fearfully,
Unnoting star or sun.
Our ship 's the slaver Leon,--
We've but a score on board;
Our slaves are all gone over,--
Help, for the love of God!"

On livid brows of agony
The broad red lightning shone;
But the roar of wind and thunder
Stifled the answering groan;
Wailed from the broken waters
A last despairing cry,
As, kindling in the stormy' light,
The stranger ship went by.

       . . . . . . . . .

In the sunny Guadaloupe
A dark-hulled vessel lay,
With a crew who noted never
The nightfall or the day.
The blossom of the orange
Was white by every stream,
And tropic leaf, and flower, and bird
Were in the warns sunbeam.

And the sky was bright as ever,
And the moonlight slept as well,
On the palm-trees by the hillside,
And the streamlet of the dell:
And the glances of the Creole
Were still as archly deep,
And her smiles as full as ever
Of passion and of sleep.

But vain were bird and blossom,
The green earth and the sky,
And the smile of human faces,
To the slaver's darkened eye;
At the breaking of the morning,
At the star-lit evening time,
O'er a world of light and beauty
Fell the blackness of his crime.

1834.
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