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-contageous and alto-
gether beyond the resources of medicine. It was aggravated by
the scarcity of water among the slaves (only half a wine glass full
per day being allowed to an individual) and by the impurity of the
air which they breathed.-By the advice of a Physician, they were
brought up 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 the dreadful condition did
not preclude calculation; to save the expense of supporting slaves
rendered unsaleable, 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.
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 a Spanish slaver, the 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 escaped the disease and had been enabled to steer the slaver
into port, cought it three days after his arrival--Speech of
M. Benjamin Constant, in the French Chamber of Deputies,
June 17th, 1820.
The first gray dawn of the morning was beaming;
The bright rays shone forth, the glad spirit of light;
The rising sun over the ocean was streaming,
And dispell'd with his rays the dark shadows of
The air-oh! how pure! and the morning was mild,
And the waters lay hush'd like a sleeping child:-
'What cheer?' cried the mate as he paced to and fro:
'What cheer?' art thou watching? is all right below?'
'All's right! cried a voice, 'the hatches are tight
As the chains that are binding the slaves this night.'
'Up, up with the flag, then; let us away;Shall tongues be mute, when deeds are wrought;
Speed the sails, 'tis a favouring wind;
And, long ere the brave of the morning we'll leave
The coast of old Afric' behind.
The moonlight will follow our track o'er the deep,
As we start through the sparkling wave,
For our cargo of beings are all hushed in sleep,
As though they were hush'd in the grave,
Then up with the anchor, and let us away,--
We care not, we must not, now longer delay!'
Gloomily stood the captain,
With his arms upon his breast,
With his cold brow sternly knitted,
And iron lip compress'd:--
'Are all well whipp'd below there?'
'Ay, ay,' the seaman said,
Heave up the worthless lubbers--
The dying and the dead.'
'Help! oh help! thou God of Christians!
Save a mother from despair;--
Cruel white man stole my children--
Oh! God of Christians, hear my prayer!
I'm young and strong and hardy;
He's a sick and feeble boy:--
Take me, whip me, chain me, starve me?
Oh God! in mercy save my boy!
"They've killed my child? they've killed my child?
The mother shriek'd,--Now all is o'er;
Down the savage captain struck her,
Lifeless on the vessel's floor
Shall outraged nature cease to fee[l]?
Shall mercy's tears no longer flow?
Shall ruffian's threat of cord and steel;
The dungeon's gloom; the assassin's blow;
Shall freemen [lock?] the midnight thought
Shall mercy's bosom cease to sigh
For woman's shrieks--and slavery;
Shall honour bleed; shall truth succumb;
Shall pen, and press, and soul be dumb;
Let every man arise to save,
From scourge and chain, the Negro slave.
Old England, sweet land of the fair and free,
Whose house is the waters;--whose flag sweeps the sea;
Still stretch out thy hand o'er the ocean's broad wave,
Protecting the helpless unfortunate slave;
And nations which call themselves free shall repent,
Of the thousands in pain to eternity sent;
Each who forswears the cause on the verge of the grave;
Will gain strength from the pray'r of the liberated slave
Printed and Published by E.M. HODGES (from PITTS,) Toy & Marble Warehouse,
26, Grafton Street, Soho London,
Where maybe obtained all the Old and New Songs
of the day, Children's Books, &c.
First published in England around 1860, "The Slave Ship" defies easy categorization. One could call it a reprint, or a plagiarism: the headnote and seven lines of the poem are lifted from John Greenleaf Whittier's abolitionist verse "The Slave-Ships" (first published in the American anti-slavery gift book Oasis in 1834). One could call the poem, at least, an new composition: except for those seven lines, it draws on no other source and appears to be an original, if somewhat leaden, work. Very probably, the author encountered the version of Whittier's poem published as a pamphlet in London and Leeds around 1853; this version was mis-titled "The Slave-Ship." Judging from the placement of Whittier's lines within the poem, there is some justification for offering the charitable speculation that the broadsheet's author quoted them from memory, perhaps even built the poem around them. Certainly, one should avoid suggesting that they were deliberately placed in such a way as to disguise the author's plagiarism.
The variegated rhyme schemes of the stanzas, the lines from Whittier, and the numerous typographical errors all combine to suggest that "The Slave Ship" was written and published in a hurry. In the months before the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, British radicals and anti-slavery societies agitated vociferously against the South. This poem may be part of the effort to influence public opinion, largely pro-Confederacy (particularly among the aristocracy), by revealing the evils of the slave trade. This seems particularly likely given the final stanza's call upon English moral superiority.
The episode on the Rodeur actually occurred. Living slaves were indeed thrown overboard for insurance purposes. The author of the broadsheet has, however, added the infanticide and the mother's plea. Such tropes are common in abolitionist work, but the raw emotion of the mother's words are particularly effective here. On a more metaphoric level, it is possible to read the slave ship as humanity, or Britain, with the disposal of the slaves analogous to England's own attitude toward American slaves: by supporting Southern slavery, the English act as barbarously as the Rodeur's captain.
"The Slave Ship," Broadsheet (London: E.M. Hodges, 1860?).