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.
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.