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Middle Passage

Written by: Robert Hayden | Biography
 | Quotes (1) |

Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy: 

Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, 
sharks following the moans the fever and the dying; 
horror the corposant and compass rose. 

Middle Passage: 
voyage through death 
to life upon these shores. 

"10 April 1800-- 
Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says 
their moaning is a prayer for death, 
our and their own. Some try to starve themselves. 
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter 
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under." 

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann: 

Standing to America, bringing home 
black gold, black ivory, black seed. 

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, of his bones 
New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes. 

Jesus Saviour Pilot Me 
Over Life's Tempestuous Sea 

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord, 
safe passage to our vessels bringing 
heathen souls unto Thy chastening. 

Jesus Saviour 

"8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick 
with fear, but writing eases fear a little 
since still my eyes can see these words take shape 
upon the page & so I write, as one 
would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding, 
but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune 
follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning 
tutelary gods). Which one of us 
has killed an albatross? A plague among 
our blacks--Ophthalmia: blindness--& we 
have jettisoned the blind to no avail. 
It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads. 
Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes 
& there is blindness in the fo'c'sle 
& we must sail 3 weeks before we come 
to port." 

What port awaits us, Davy Jones' or home? I've 
heard of slavers drifting, drifting, playthings of wind and storm and 
chance, their crews gone blind, the jungle hatred crawling 
up on deck. 

Thou Who Walked On Galilee 

"Deponent further sayeth The Bella J 
left the Guinea Coast 
with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd 
for the barracoons of Florida: 

"That there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half 
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there; 
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh 
and sucked the blood: 

"That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest 
of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins; 
that there was one they called The Guinea Rose 
and they cast lots and fought to lie with her: 

"That when the Bo's'n piped all hands, the flames 
spreading from starboard already were beyond 
control, the negroes howling and their chains 
entangled with the flames: 

"That the burning blacks could not be reached, 
that the Crew abandoned ship, 
leaving their shrieking negresses behind, 
that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches: 

"Further Deponent sayeth not." 

Pilot Oh Pilot Me 


Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories, 
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar; 
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps 
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished 

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons. 
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity 
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah, 
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us. 

And there was one--King Anthracite we named him-- 
fetish face beneath French parasols 
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth 
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies: 

He'd honor us with drum and feast and conjo 
and palm-oil-glistening wenches deft in love, 
and for tin crowns that shone with paste, 
red calico and German-silver trinkets 

Would have the drums talk war and send 
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages 
and kill the sick and old and lead the young 
in coffles to our factories. 

Twenty years a trader, twenty years, 
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested 
from those black fields, and I'd be trading still 
but for the fevers melting down my bones. 


Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, 
the dark ships move, the dark ships move, 
their bright ironical names 
like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth; 
plough through thrashing glister toward 
fata morgana's lucent melting shore, 
weave toward New World littorals that are 
mirage and myth and actual shore. 

Voyage through death, 
voyage whose chartings are unlove. 

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death 
spreads outward from the hold, 
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying, 
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement. 

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, the corpse of mercy 
rots with him, rats eat love's rotten gelid eyes. But, oh, the 
living look at you with human eyes whose suffering accuses you, whose 
hatred reaches through the swill of dark to strike you like a leper's 
claw. You cannot stare that hatred down or chain the fear that stalks 
the watches and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath; cannot 
kill the deep immortal human wish, the timeless will. 

"But for the storm that flung up barriers 
of wind and wave, The Amistad, señores, 
would have reached the port of Príncipe in two, 
three days at most; but for the storm we should 
have been prepared for what befell. 
Swift as a puma's leap it came. There was 
that interval of moonless calm filled only 
with the water's and the rigging's usual sounds, 
then sudden movement, blows and snarling cries 
and they had fallen on us with machete 
and marlinspike. It was as though the very 
air, the night itself were striking us. 
Exhausted by the rigors of the storm, 
we were no match for them. Our men went down 
before the murderous Africans. Our loyal 
Celestino ran from below with gun 
and lantern and I saw, before the cane- 
knife's wounding flash, Cinquez, 
that surly brute who calls himself a prince, 
directing, urging on the ghastly work. 
He hacked the poor mulatto down, and then 
he turned on me. The decks were slippery 
when daylight finally came. It sickens me 
to think of what I saw, of how these apes 
threw overboard the butchered bodies of 
our men, true Christians all, like so much jetsam. 
Enough, enough. The rest is quickly told: 
Cinquez was forced to spare the two of us 
you see to steer the ship to Africa, 
and we like phantoms doomed to rove the sea 
voyaged east by day and west by night, 
deceiving them, hoping for rescue, 
prisoners on our own vessel, till 
at length we drifted to the shores of this 
your land, America, where we were freed 
from our unspeakable misery. Now we 
demand, good sirs, the extradition of 
Cinquez and his accomplices to La 
Havana. And it distresses us to know 
there are so many here who seem inclined 
to justify the mutiny of these blacks. 
We find it paradoxical indeed 
that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty 
are rooted in the labor of your slaves 
should suffer the august John Quincey Adams 
to speak with so much passion of the right 
of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters 
and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero's 
garland for Cinquez. I tell you that 
we are determined to return to Cuba 
with our slaves and there see justice done. 
or let us say 'the Prince'--Cinquez shall die." 

The deep immortal human wish, 
the timeless will: 

Cinquez its deathless primaveral image, 
life that transfigures many lives. 

Voyage through death 
to life upon these shores.