The Slave-Ships by John Greenleaf Whittier
"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.