Trouble in mind; or, Hayden’s Middle Passage

Middle Passage 

by Robert Hayden


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,

ours 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 the 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 Quincy 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. Cinquez—

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.



Robert Hayden, “Middle Passage” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1962, 1966 by Robert Hayden.


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