The Slave-ships





"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.





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