The Slave Ship
Close Reading by James Tysse

  All the company now on board, the imperious voice of the captain sounded, and instantly a dozen hardy seamen were in the rigging, hurrying aloft to unfurl the broad canvas of our Baltimore built American Slaver. The sailors hung about the ropes, like so many black cats, now in the round-tops, now in the cross-trees, now on the yard-arms; all was bluster and activity. Soon the broad fore topsail, the royal and top gallant sail were spread to the breeze. Round went the heavy windlass, clank, clank went the fall-bit,--the anchors weighed, jibs, mainsails, and topsails hauled to the wind, and the long, low, black slaver, with her cargo of human flesh, careened and moved forward to the sea. (pp. 223-24)

  In this uncommonly lyrical passage from Frederick Douglass' "The Heroic Slave," technical jargon abounds and makes up the majority of the passage. But Douglass employs a real mastery of literary devices, disguising behind flowing language and technical terms a dark ship that at once is an indictment of the American slave trade and an ironic and insidious reminder of the man-made ship's purpose.

  In one sense, this "long, low, black slaver" is set up as yet another reminder of the abhorrent trade of human lives. This is stated explicitly, with the damning words "cargo of human flesh," and the ironically proud language associated with the unfurling of "the broad canvas of our Baltimore built American Slaver." Douglass uses alliteration in a number of places, like "long, low black slaver," and "Baltimore built," to emphasize in the former case the seedy nature of the ship and in the latter the ironic pomp associated with an American product put to such despicable purposes. The crew members also reveal much about the ship itself: the "imperious voice of the captain" recalls imperial tyranny, and the metaphor of the sailors ("like so many black cats") is not only descriptive but reminiscent of superstitious portents of bad luck. The repetition of the trio of hyphenated terms, "now in the round-tops, now in the cross-trees, now on the yard-arms," makes the passage flow and also reinforces the cat-like, engulfing presence of the evil crew.

  Looking deeper, Douglass' ship description reveals a deep irony, as he contrasts the proud circumstances of the launching of a great ship with its dark purpose. Phrases like "the royal and top gallant sail were spread to the breeze" sound triumphant and proud, but the next sentence contains an ironic response, in "the long, low, black slaver": this sentence is not describing the same majestic craft. The skillful repetition of the first word in the sentence "clank, clank went the fall-bit" is perhaps the most clever of Douglass' devices; the fall-bit is hardly the item on a slave ship the discerning reader expects to make the sound "clank, clank."

  The deep irony reveals the hypocrisy of the slave trade in general. What could have been a proud American-built ship, gallantly sailing from shore, is instead a "long, low, black slaver," containing mates who portend bad luck and a tyrannical captain, careening from the harbor. Perhaps a ship with such dark purposes can't leave the harbor without careening, lurching to the side; an upright start would require a reciprocal moral rectitude.


BACK TO ESSAY HOMEPAGE