The first Wednesday of every month, starting with February and ending in May, the university I'm going to has a Coffee House series where well known musicians, poets, writers etc., are invited to come do their thing for the students. It's also free to the general public. Afterwards there is open mike and anyone can get up on the stage and sing a song or read a poem etc.
So that's where my creative writing class was, listening to some great blues by the guest performer, a man named Willie Jaye Laws.
One of the requirements for my class is to participate in at least one open mike night.
Because it's Black History Month I wanted to read a story I've written based on something that really happened. But it was going to take too long to read. So my professor suggested I take lines and words from it and write a sort of prose/narrative poem that would tell the essence of the story. So there in the midst of all the noise of students and music I did just that. And then, at the end of the evening, I was the last one to get up and read what I'd written. I was rather nervous, as I in no way claim to be a poet, but I did it. And now I share it with you.
First I read a little background history:
In 1819 a French ship left Bonny on the Bight of Biafra sailing for the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. In the hold were captured Negros. Also on board was a 12 year old boy named Jacque, returning to Guadeloupe after visiting family in France. He kept a journal of his experience.
The Blind Ship
160 Negro slaves in the hold.
They brought with them a blinding eye disease.
On deck to be tended by the surgeon, some leapt into the sea,
dying for freedom.
From that point on they were kept within the hold.
The disease spread at a frightful rate.
Sailors slung food down from the upper deck.
36 blind slaves were thrown over board.
The captain and surgeon went blind.
Soon, all the crew, save one went blind.
And the waves carried the ship on their endless heaving backs,
a wreck without a rudder.
In the hold the human cargo cried.
If this misery were not enough
a storm came down upon the ship
cracking masts, snapping sails.
At last the storm subsided
and the one sighted crew member sighted a sail,
steered towards it.
A cry when out from every man on deck
and was echoed back across the waves.
"Save us! We need men to sail our ship!"
"Food," came the cry from the second ship.
"Food for money. Men we cannot give for we are all stone blind!"
The two ships drifted apart
as laughter erupted, spreading like the disease itself;
laughter, a kind of morbid relief.
Somehow they found their harbor home.
The surgeon and eleven crew were blinded for life.
The captain lost an eye.
39 slaves were also blind, the rest blind in one eye or their vision impaired.
In the hold their muffled moans were heard.
Their ordeal was not yet over.
The anti-slave poem, "The Slave Ships" by John Greenleaf Whittier was inspired by Jacque's account who suffered from the disease and was blind for 10 days. The disease was probably trachoma. As for the second blind ship, which was Spanish, she was never heard from again.