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Word from Luanda

by James Graham 

Posted: 05 July 2014
Word Count: 105
Summary: A reworking of a poem I wrote many years ago. You donít want to see the original! Sorry itís so grim, though the very last word may counteract that a little. As far as I know itís a true incident. One of many.


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Word from Luanda

where, in 1832, seven hundred blacks
were gathered, shackled, blessed, and stowed.
A priest who spoke their language promised
Brazil or Heaven. Some five days out

one woman and five men escaped
as far as the boat-deck. All
struck down, cast overboard.
Remaining cargo checked, secured.

She was alive. The ocean washed
the blood from her eyes and mouth.
She had time to feel the monstrous
respiration of the waves, to know

there was no way but death. Perhaps
she thought of home, for she gave a cry,
a word that reached the departing deck,
and was not answered but remembered.
 






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Comments by other Members



Bazz at 20:22 on 09 July 2014  Report this post
Hi James, this is haunting, especially the last stanza. i'm not sure about "felled" in the second stanza, i like the abrupt finality of it, which feels very truthful, but gramatically i'm not sure if it doesn't jar a little?
The end is incredibly powerful. that haunting cry, heard, remembered, but not answered, says so much for the horrible isolation and desperation that must have been endured by so many...

James Graham at 20:51 on 11 July 2014  Report this post
I've changed 'routinely felled' to 'struck down'. Seems even more callous. Does it work? These lines about striking them down, throwing them overboard, and checking the rest of the cargo, are meant to sound like things the crew would be expected to do routinely, like manning the yards.

James.

Bazz at 15:40 on 13 July 2014  Report this post
Hi James, yes that works perfectly. It gives you the horrible impression of someone cut down as a matter of course, disposed of like an object. What's strong about this is the brute finality, and then the haunting end, with the hope this death has made some small impression...

desdillon at 16:48 on 13 July 2014  Report this post
Great poem James. My feeling is that it would be very powerful starting right here:


She was alive. The ocean washed
the blood from her eyes and mouth.
She had time to feel the monstrous
respiration of the waves, to know

there was no way but death. Perhaps
she thought of home, for she gave a cry,
a word that reached the departing deck,
and was not answered but remembered.

And then the information needed to place the horrible moments could come next.  But to star with She was alive etc. sets up a powerful intrigue. Then by the time the reader gets in the ocean with this woman they are hooked and would read on to get the general setting of the events.

where, in 1832, seven hundred blacks
were gathered, shackled, blessed, and stowed.
A priest who spoke their language promised
America or Heaven. Some five days out

one woman and five men escaped
as far as the boat-deck. All
struck down, put overboard.
Remaining cargo checked, secured.

James Graham at 14:54 on 14 July 2014  Report this post
Thanks for the comment, Des. To start right in the middle of things is a good idea. I would still like 'not answered but remembered' to be the final words, though. There might just be a way of pulling that trick off:
 
there was no way but death. Perhaps
she thought of home: where seven hundred blacks
had been gathered, shackled, blessed, and stowed

Then further on:
 
boat-deck. All struck
down, put overboard. Remaining
cargo checked, secured. Perhaps
she thought of home, for she gave a cry,

a word that reached the departing deck,
and was not answered but remembered.

I'm doing this right now, just before posting - so it's a ramshackle bit of revision! Might just come together, though - with more work. You can always experiment and if you don't like it stick with the original.

James.
 

James Graham at 15:00 on 14 July 2014  Report this post
Barry - this was quite a simple change to make:

Struck down

I'm glad it works. Thanks for pointing it out.

James.

desdillon at 15:20 on 14 July 2014  Report this post
Hi James aye it's a powerful ending echoing of the continued racism of the loss people who are beard but not answered and would make the perfect last line. Forgive spelling etc I'm on my phone without my glasses. But the poem as a powerful filmic quality like the opening scene to a slave movie and all that is wrong with that continuing episode of history is contained in that vignette.

James Graham at 13:54 on 15 July 2014  Report this post
Hi Des - The re-ordering of the poem works quite well, it was worth doing the experiment, but I think it'll have to stay as it is - with 'remembered' as the final word. I seem to have lost the source of this story, a book on the Atlantic slave trade I read once, but I do recall that this 1832 incident was 'remembered' in the sense that someone reported it to anti-slavery campaigners. Of course, the slave trade had been abolished in 1807 but unsurprisingly it went on for many more years. There were many instances of slaves being thrown overboard, and abominably treated in other ways, but this brutal incident at least helped the cause of abolition.

James.

RalphFSmith at 14:47 on 15 July 2014  Report this post
James, I am a latecomer to this interesting discussion of your poem.  The poem evokes, in a condensed and haunting way, other pieces on slavery and slave ships - in particular Barry Unsworth's excellent novel, Sacred Hunger (1992). I have only a few questions. 

From what I have read, Luanda was the bridgehead of the slave traffic between the Portugese colony of Angola and Brazil until 1836, when Portugal, a latecomer, abolished the international slave trade.  The vast majority of ships in Luanda's harbour would be destined for Brazil and the remainder for other Portugese colonies across the Atlantic. The upshot of this is that I suggest you change the word "America" to "Brazil." Brazil is of course part of the Americas but, even by early Victorian times, the word "America" tended to denote North America and it would do so even more for the modern reader.

In the second stanza, I would change the words, "put overboard" to "thrown overboard" to make this expression more dramatic. 

Excellent work,

Ralph        

James Graham at 20:57 on 15 July 2014  Report this post
Ralph, thanks for commenting. I’m sure you’re right about Brazil being the destination. This poem was written some years ago and now I can’t find the book in which this story was told. But of course it would be the Portuguese trade between Angola and Brazil. There was a treaty between Britain and Portugal (1817 I think) in which the Portuguese agreed to desist from the trade north of the equator – which was no great hardship – and the southern Atlantic trade went on until the 1830s.

There were a few successful slave revolts on board ship - one in the 1760s where slaves took over a ship called the Little George and sailed it back to Sierra Leone. They killed the officers, I think, but let the ordinary seamen get away in small boats.

James.
 


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