The following passage from James Montgomery’s poem, “The West Indies,” published in 1810, was inspired by “Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa.” It enshrines in English verse the beautiful incident of the negro woman’s song of “Charity” (on page 190 of the first of these two volumes), and closes with the poet’s blessing upon Mungo Park himself, who had sailed five years before upon the second journey, from which he had not returned, and whose fate did not become known until five years later.
Man, through all ages of revolving time,
Unchanging man, in every varying clime,
Deems his own land of every land the pride,
Beloved by Heaven o’er all the world beside;
His home the spot of earth supremely blest,
A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest.
And is the Negro outlawed from his birth?
Is he alone a stranger on the earth?
Is there no shed whose peeping roof appears
So lovely that it fills his eyes with tears?
No land, whose name, in exile heard, will dart
Ice through his veins and lightning through his heart?
Ah! yes; beneath the beams of brighter skies
His home amidst his father’s country lies;
There with the partner of his soul he shares
Love-mingled pleasures, love-divided cares;
There, as with nature’s warmest filial fire,
He soothes his blind and feeds his helpless sire;
His children, sporting round his hut, behold
How they shall cherish him when he is old,
Trained by example from their tenderest youth
To deeds of charity and words of truth.
Is HE not blest? Behold, at closing day,
The Negro village swarms abroad to play;
He treads the dance, through all its rapturous rounds,
To the wild music of barbarian sounds;
Or, stretched at ease where broad palmettos shower
Delicious coolness in his shadowy bower,
He feasts on tales of witchcraft, that give birth
To breathless wonder or ecstatic mirth:
Yet most delighted when, in rudest rhymes,
The minstrel wakes the song of elder times,
When men were heroes, slaves to Beauty’s charms,
And all the joys of life were love and arms.
Is not the Negro blest? His generous soil
With harvest plenty crowns his simple toil;
More than his wants his flocks and fields afford:
He loves to greet a stranger at his board:
“The winds were roaring and the White Man fled;
The rains of night descended on his head;
The poor White Man sat down beneath our tree:
Weary and faint and far from home was he:
For him no mother fills with milk the bowl,
No wife prepares the bread to cheer his soul.
Pity the poor White Man, who sought our tree;
No wife, no mother, and no home has he.”
Thus sung the Negro’s daughters; — once again,
O that the poor White Man might hear that strain!
Whether the victim of the treacherous Moor,
Or from the Negro’s hospitable door
Spurned as a spy from Europe’s hateful clime,
And left to perish for thy country’s crime,
Or destined still, when all thy wanderings cease,
On Albion’s lovely lap to rest in peace,
Pilgrim! in heaven or earth, where’er thou be,
Angels of mercy guide and comfort thee!
A note to the same poem gives the following record of facts, substantiated in a court of justice, in which there can be only one answer to the question, “Which were the savages?”
“In this year (1783) certain underwriters desired to be heard against Gregson and others of Liverpool, in the case of the ship Zong, Captain Collingwood, alleging that the captain and officers of the said vessel threw overboard one hundred and thirty-two slaves alive into the sea, in order to defraud them by claiming the value of the said slaves, as if they had been lost in a natural way. In the course of the trial which afterwards came on, it appeared that the slaves on board the Zong were very sickly; that sixty of them had already died, and several were ill and likely to die, when the captain proposed to James Kelsal, the mate, and others to throw several of them overboard, stating that ‘if they died a natural death, the loss would fall upon the owners of the ship, but that if they were thrown into the sea, it would fall upon the underwriters.’ He selected accordingly one hundred and thirty-two of the most sickly of the slaves. Fifty-four of these were immediately thrown overboard, and forty-two were made to be partakers of their fate on the succeeding day. In the course of three days afterwards the remaining twenty-six were brought upon deck to complete the number of victims. The first sixteen submitted to be thrown into the sea, but the rest, with a noble resolution, would not suffer the offices to touch them, but leaped after their companions and shared their fate.
“The plea which was set up in behalf of this atrocious and unparalleled act of wickedness was that the captain discovered, when he made the proposal, that he had only two hundred gallons of water on board, and that he had missed his port. It was proved, however, in answer to this, that no one had been put upon short allowance; and that, as if Providence had determined to afford an unequivocal proof of the guilt, a shower of rain fell, and continued for three days, immediately after the second lot of slaves had been destroyed, by means of which they might have filled many of their vessels with water, and thus have prevented all necessity for the destruction of the third.
“Mr. Granville Sharp (who after many years of struggle first obtained the decision of a court of justice that there ARE no slaves in England) was present at this trial, and procured the attendance of a shorthand writer to take down the facts which should come out in the course of it. These he gave to the public afterwards. He communicated them also, with a copy of the trial, to the Lords of the Admiralty, as the guardians of justice upon the seas, and to the Duke of Portland, as principal Minister of state. No notice, however, was taken by any of these of the information which had been thus sent them.”
Another incident of the Middle Passage suggested to James Montgomery a poem called “The Voyage of the Blind.”
“It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark.”
— MILTON’S Lycidas.
The ship Le Rodeur, Captain B., of 200 tons burthen, left Havre on the 24th of January, 1819, for the coast of Africa, and reached her destination on the 14th of March following, anchoring at Bonny, on the river Calabar. The crew, consisting of twenty-two men, enjoyed good health during the outward voyage and during their stay at Bonny, where they continued till the 6th of April. They had observed no trace of ophthalmia among the natives; and it was not until fifteen days after they had set sail on the return voyage, and the vessel was near the equator, that they perceived the first symptoms of this frightful malady. It was then remarked that the negroes, who to the number of 160 were crowded together in the hold and between the decks, had contracted a considerable redness of the eyes, which spread with singular rapidity. No great attention was at first paid to these symptoms, which were thought to be caused only by the want of air in the hold, and by the scarcity of water, which had already begun to be felt. At this time they were limited to eight ounces of water a day for each person, which quantity was afterwards reduced to the half of a wine-glass. By the advice of M. Maugnan, the surgeon of the ship, the negroes, who had hitherto remained shut up in the hold, were brought upon deck in succession, in order that they might breathe a purer air. But it became necessary to abandon this expedient, salutary as it was, because many of the negroes, affected with nostalgia (a passionate longing to return to their native land), threw themselves into the sea, locked in each other’s arms.
The disease, which had spread itself so rapidly and frightfully among the Africans, soon began to infect all on board. The danger also was greatly increased by a malignant dysentery which prevailed at the time. The first of the crew who caught it was a sailor who slept under the deck near the grated hatch which communicated with the hold. The next day a landsman was seized with ophthalmia; and in three days more the captain and the whole ship’s company, except one sailor, who remained at the helm, were blinded by the disorder.
All means of cure which the surgeon employed, while he was able to act, proved ineffectual. The sufferings of the crew, which were otherwise intense, were aggravated by apprehension of revolt among the negroes, and the dread of not being able to reach the West Indies, if the only sailor who had hitherto escaped the contagion, and on whom their whole hope rested, should lose his sight, like the rest. This calamity had actually befallen the Leon, a Spanish vessel which the Rodeur met on her passage, and the whole of whose crew, having become blind, were under the necessity of altogether abandoning the direction of their ship. These unhappy creatures, as they passed, earnestly entreated the charitable interference of the seamen of the Rodeur; but these, under their own affliction, could neither quit their vessel to go on board the Leon, nor receive the crew of the latter into the Rodeur, where, on account of the cargo of negroes, there was scarcely room for themselves. The vessels therefore soon parted company, and the Leon was never seen nor heard of again, so far as could be traced at the publication of this narrative. In all probability, then, it was lost. On the fate of THIS vessel the poem is founded.
The Rodeur reached Guadaloupe on the 21st of June, 1819, her crew being in a most deplorable condition. Of the negroes, thirty-seven had become perfectly blind, twelve had lost each an eye, and fourteen remained otherwise blemished by the disease. Of the crew, twelve, including the surgeon, had entirely lost their sight; five escaped with an eye each, and four were partially injured.
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