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Middle Passage: Voyaging on an Irony of Fate

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Robert E. Hayden did not want to be known as an African American poet, but rather simply a poet. Because of his desire, Hayden endured much criticism from his own African American community. However, it was through this sort of detachment, that Hayden was able to stretch the boundaries of his poetic abilities to create “Middle Passage.” Hayden, therefore, challenged his own doubts regarding moral limitations on modernism. “Middle Passage” is the poetic and historical account of a gang of slave traders who purchase a group of Africans and later suffer demise. Arthur Abraham chronicled the event in his article entitled The Amistad Revolt, An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States. The purchase and trade of the Africans was outlawed based on the “Anglo-Spanish Treaty of 1820, which prohibited the transatlantic slave trade (Abraham 11).” Hence, the capture and sale of the Africans was done so illegally, making the Africans free men. According to one of Hayden’s biographical accounts, “the poem is laden with irony, which in part, depends upon the ships’ names (Jesus, Esperanza, Mercy), a sailor’s hymn (“Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”), and a parody of a song from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Jones). Hayden brilliantly inserts Christian references, which also imply a Christian belief system, into the poem that add a definite contrast to the actual events that take place on board the vessel Amistad. In order to take the notion of irony a step further, I suggest that the poem in whole consists of an irony of fate; particularly with regard to the slavers.

Hayden wrote “Middle Passage” as an answer, partly, to T.S. Eliot’s, “The Waste land.” Brian Conniff’s article refers to Michael S. Harper’s remark regarding the poem as “a poetic and historical challenge rather than a reverent echo (Conniff).” Harper also remarked that “Hayden tried, through his knowledge of diverse poetic traditions, to move beyond the many of the experiments steeped in conscious modernism (Conniff).” Hayden uses a mix of postmodernism pastiche techniques in “Middle Passage.” He gathers information from historical documents and creates what reads like a ship’s log, poetic voice, diary, hymn and narrative. According to Hayden, written in an article by Jim Murphy with regard to the narrator(s) in the poem: At times [the poet’s] voice seems to merge with voices from the past, voices not intended to be clearly identified. There are the voices of the traders, of the hymn-singers, and perhaps even of the dead. Yes, I would say that – the voices of the dead (Murphy 110). It is through these various perspectives that Hayden is able to provide a seemingly unbiased detail of events that lead to no particular universal thought as to who the true victims are. It is left to the reader’s perspective. The slave traders’ mentality is that they have a right to capture and enslave other human beings for their own use.

The slavers become seriously disturbed when the slaves rebel against being captured and inhumanely treated. In an attempt to determine whether the concept of ironic fate applies, it is important to explore the assorted events that take place on board the vessel. In one example, the slave traders believe themselves to be good Christian men, but subject the slaves to cruel and inhumane suffering. As what reads to be a sort of diary in the poem, the narrator prays, “We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord, / safe passage to our vessels bring / heathen souls unto Thy chastening” (23-24). The crewmember’s intent is that the crew be saved so that the slavers can inflict suffering upon the slaves for moral improvement. Noted in what appears to be the diary of a slave trader, is his account of an African King who aids and abets in the capture of other Africans from various villages. The very men who pillage, in some cases, whole villages and conceivably almost destroy a nation of people are willingly assisted by their victims. The King fraternizes with the slavers. He shows honor by offering African women for the slavers’ enjoyment and provides festivities: 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 (82-85)

The reader could anticipate based on the implied lack of trust of both parties, that only in a matter of time, will the King himself become a captive. Aboard ship, a poetic voice is used to express the worry of one capturer who ponders whether the crew will make it home after experiencing a terrible storm. The sailor, presumably, worries whether the crew will end up in Davy Jones’ locker which signifies that the obvious sentiment on board the vessel is that none of the sailors want to die. Further testimony is provided, using a narrative form, of another vessel that has suffered a fire. This other ship’s slaves cannot be reached and ultimately dies. Additionally, the crew abandons ship leaving their drunken Captain behind who dies among the shrieking Negresses. All the while, the captives remain below deck in a horrific scene whose destiny dare not be questioned. Meanwhile, the capturers aboard the Amistad end up with a disease, Ophthalmia, (an inflammation of the eye causing blindness) from the slaves and apparently do not understand why the sickness has occurred.

The narrator attributes the decease to misfortune rather than as the crew being the causer due to such vile conditions the slaves are kept in. In what appears to be diary form, the crew member gives his account of how he cannot sleep for being so fearful so he stays up to write. The narrator believes the crew is possibly cursed, “Which one of us has killed an albatross (33-34)?” The Captain of the Amistad has caught the decease, cannot see and the decease has spread to the crew’s sleeping quarters. The crew attempts to control the plague by throwing the affected slaves overboard, but that does not stop the spread. The narrator describes, in poetic voice, the suffrage of the slaves. Captives aboard the vessel lie among a repository containing dead bodies. Slaves, dead and alive, are bound by shackles; and are forced to lie imprisoned and unmoving in blood and excrement while the narrator prays for mercy from the sea: Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me over life’s tempestuous sea; unknown waves before me roll, hiding rock and treacherous shoal. Chart and compass come from thee, Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me (HymnSite).

While the crew worries about their fate from the storm, the slaves remain hopeful, “cannot kill the deep immortal human wish, the timeless will (118-119).” The slaves’ desire to stay alive leads to possibly one of the greatest ironies. Had the storm not occurred and delayed the voyage, the crew would have made it to its destination prior to the slaves’ revolt. The crew, however, is too tired from (presumably) manning the vessel to prevent damage and ultimately meets their demise. The slaves keep three survivors from the Amistad to sail the ship back to Africa. Two surviving slavers feel like captives after the mutiny when in fact the slaves simply wanted to be returned home from which they were stolen and handled like commodities. As one slaver remarks, in a narrative type format, they are sickened at the site of the “apes” (slaves) murdering true Christians by first butchering them and casting their bodies overboard like goods. There is a clear indication at the beginning of the poem that the Africans are not thought of as people, but as valuable assets, “Standing to America, bringing home black gold, black ivory, black seed (15-16). It is also noted in what appears to be a diary of one of the slave traders the referral to Africa as black fields and how the Africans are harvested.

Upon the slaves’ recapture and trial by the Americans, one surviving slaver is astonished at the fact that the American lawyer willingly defends the slaves’ murderous actions on board the Amistad. The trial takes place during a time when even the United States is at odds over whether the emancipation of slaves should be considered. The slaver remarked at how Americans built wealth and prosperity on the shoulders of slaves, yet consider the slave leader, Cinquez, heroic. The slaver does not contemplate the slave traders’ treatment (of the slaves) and how the slaves rebelled out of a life or death situation.

Instead the slaver vows to return to Cuba with the slaves and kill Cinquez in further retaliation. The reader might easily conclude that the events that take place on board the Amistad are in fact examples of ironic fate. The surviving slaver comes from a society where it is widely legitimized and accepted to enslave and mindlessly murder other human beings unlike them. The slave traders feel justified in murdering the slaves in order to preserve their own and/or in retaliation for disobedience. However, following the slaying of the capturers in an attempt for the slaves’ survival, the Christian slaver feels an injustice has occurred from the very fate he and his men have subjected the slaves to after the slaves are redeemed.

Works Cited

“509. Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me.” HymnSite.com. 7 Oct 2008 Abraham, Arthur. “The Amistad Revolt, An Historical Legacy of Sierra Leone and the United States.” U.S. Department of State International Information Programs 11 (no year listed). 9 Oct 2008 Conniff, Brian. “Answering “The Waste Land”: Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African American Poetic Sequence.”African
American Review. 33.3 (Fall 1999): 487. Academic OneFile. Gale. Chapman University. 30 Sept. 2008 Jones, Norma R. “Robert Hayen.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Trudier Harris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Gale Group, 1988. 75-88.

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