Thomas Pringle, "The Slave Dealer" (1834)


From ocean's wave a Wanderer came,
  With visage tanned and dun:
His Mother, when he told his name,
  Scarce knew her long-lost son;
So altered was his face and frame
  By the ill course he had run.

There was hot fever in his blood,
  And dark thoughts in his brain;
And oh! to turn his heart to good
  That Mother strove in vain,
For fierce and fearful was his mood,
  Racked by remorse and pain.

And if, at times, a gleam more mild
  Would o'er his features stray,
When knelt the Widow near her Child,
  And he tried with her to pray,
It lasted not    for visions wild
  Still scared good thoughts away.

"There's blood upon my hands!" he said,
  "Which water cannot wash;
It was not shed where warriors bled    
  It dropped from the gory lash,
As I whirled it o'er and o'er my head,
  And with each stroke left a gash.

"With every stroke I left a gash,
  While Negro blood sprang high;
And now all ocean cannot wash
  My soul from murder's dye;
Nor e'en thy prayer, dear Mother, quash
  That Woman's wild death-cry!

"Her cry is ever in my ear,
  And it will not let me pray;
Her look I see    her voice I hear  
  As when in death she lay,
And said, 'With me thou must appear
  On God's great Judgment-day!'"

"Now, Christ from frenzy keep my son!"
  The woeful Widow cried;
"Such murder foul thou ne'er hast done  
  Some fiend thy soul belied!"  
   Nay, Mother! the Avenging One
  Was witness when she died!

"The writhing wretch with furious heel
  I crushed    no mortal nigh;
But that same hour her dread appeal
  Was registered on high;
And now with God I have to deal,
  And dare not meet His eye!"

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Notes on the poem

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It would take a strange set of events for the son of Scottish farmers to develop into one of the most important figures in South African poetry and culture. The circumstances leading to Thomas Pringle's literary career are indeed unusual, but the events of his life instilled within Pringle a love for South Africa that guided his life and work. Lame since being dropped by his nanny when he was three months old, as a boy Pringle was never able to participate in youthful games, which left him with much time for study and reflection. He was also unable to follow the farming tradition of his ancestors. Soon after his father sent Thomas to Edinburgh University, it became evident that Pringle's passion was writing. Upon leaving the University, Pringle took a job with the General Register Office in order to make a living, but his writing never ceased. His situation changed in 1817 when he accepted a position as editor of The Edinburgh Magazine, and his literary ability was finally recognized. In 1819 he published his first volume of poems, The Autumnal Excursion and Other Poems. Because of agricultural difficulties in Scotland, Pringle and his family decided to leave Scotland in favor of Eastern Cape of South Africa. Unable to farm, Pringle used his connections with Sir Walter Scott to secure a position in the South African Public Library, Cape Town. After spending about three years traveling the continent, he co-founded the South African Journal. Pringle's writing style began to reflect his surroundings as he filled his writings with the exotic images of the Cape. Pringle also developed a passion for promoting human independence and spreading Christianity. This passion would was expressed in many of his poems. After returning to England in 1826, Pringle became secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1827. In 1828 some of Pringle's South African works were published in Ephemerides: or Occasional Poems, Written in Scotland and South Africa. In 1834 Pringle published a book of South African poetry entitled African Sketches. This was the last work Thomas Pringle published before succumbing to an illness on December 5, 1834.
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Bibliographical note

Pringle, Thomas, "The Slave Dealer," African Sketches (London: E. Moxon, 1834), pp. 91-93.
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This hypertext was created on November 3, 1999, by Tim Degnan.