The Poem

The Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave-Trade

By: Robert Southey


It was a Christian minister,

Who, in the month of flowers,

Walked forth at eve amid fields

Near Bristol’s ancient towers,—


When, from a lonely out-house breathed,

He heard a voice of woe,

And groans which less might seem from pain

Than wretchedness to flow.


Heart-rendering groans they were, with words

Of bitterest despair,

Yet with the holy name of Christ

Pronounced in broken prayer


The Christian minister went in:

A Sailor there he sees,

Whose hands were lifted up to heaven;

And he was on his knees.


Nor did the Sailor, so intent,

His entering footsteps heed;

But now “Our Father” said, and now

His half-forgotten creed,—


And often on our Saviour called

With many a bitter groan,

But in such anguish as may spring

From deepest guilt alone.


The miserable man was asked

Why he was kneeling there,

And what had been the crime that had caused

The anguish of his prayer.


“I have done a cursed thing!” he cried:

“It haunts me night and day;

And I have sought this lonely place

Here undisturbed to pray.


Aboard I have no place for prayer;

So I came here alone,

That I might freely kneel and pray,

And call on Christ, and groan.


If to the mainmast-head I go,

The Wicked One is there;

From place to place, from rope to rope,

He follows me everywhere.


I shut my eyes,—it matters not;

Still, still the same I see;

And, when I lie me down at night,

‘Tis always day with me.


He follows, follows everywhere;

And every place is hell:

O God! and I must go with him

In endless fire to dwell!


He follows, follows everywhere;

He’s still above, below:

Oh, tell me where to fly from him!

Oh, tell me where to go!”


“Oh cursed, cursed is the deed!”

The wretched man replies;

“And night and day, and everywhere,

‘Tis still before my eyes.


I sailed on board a Guinea-man,

And to the slave-coast went:

Would that the sea had swallowed me

When I was innocent!


And we took in our cargo there,—

Three hundred negro slaves;

And we sailed homeward merrily

Over the ocean-waves.


But some were sulky of the slaves,

And would not touch their meat;

So therefore we were forced by threats

And blows to make them eat.


One woman, sulkier than the rest,

Would still refuse her food:

O Jesus God! I hear her cries!

I see her in her blood!


The captain made me tie her up,

And flog while he stood by;

And then he cursed me if I stayed

My hand to hear her cry.


She shrieked, she groaned: I could not spare;

For the captain he stood by:

Dear God! that I might rest one night

From that poor creature’s cry!


What woman’s child a sight like that

Could bear to look upon?

And still the captain would not spare,

But made me still flog on.


She could not be more glad than I

When she was taken down:

A blessed minute! ‘twas the last

That I had ever known.


I did not close my eyes all night,

Thinking what I had done:

I heard her groans, and they grew faint

Towards the rising sun.


She groaned and moaned, but her voice grew

Fainter at morning tide;

Fainter and fainter still it came,

Until, at noon, she died.


They flung her overboard: poor wretch!

She rested from her pain;

But when, O Christ! O blessed God!

Shall I have rest again?


I saw the sea close over her:

Yet she is still in sight;

I see her twisting everywhere

I see her day and night.


Go where I will, do what I can,

The Wicked One I see:

Dear Christ, have mercy on my soul!

O God, deliver me!


Oh, give me comfort, if you can!

Oh, tell me where to fly!

Oh, tell me if there can be hope

For one so lost as I!”


What said the Minister of Christ?

He bade him trust in Heaven,

And call on Him for whose dear sake

All sins shall be forgiven.


He told him of that precious blood

Which should all sins efface

Told him that none are lost but they

Who turn from proffer’d grace.


He bade him pray, and knelt with him,

And joined him in his prayers;

And some who read the dreadful tale

Perhaps will aid with theirs.



Works Cited:

Southey, Robert. “The Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave-Trade”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Eds. David Damrosch, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. 270-272.

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