“That fatal, that perfidious bark,
Built I’ the eclipse, and rigged with curses dark.”
“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.