Robert Hayden

Here you will find the Long Poem Middle Passage of poet Robert Hayden

Middle Passage


Jesús, Estrella, Esperanza, Mercy: 

Sails flashing to the wind like weapons, 
sharks following the moans the fever and the dying; 
horror the corposant and compass rose. 

Middle Passage: 
voyage through death 
to life upon these shores. 

"10 April 1800-- 
Blacks rebellious. Crew uneasy. Our linguist says 
their moaning is a prayer for death, 
our and their own. Some try to starve themselves. 
Lost three this morning leaped with crazy laughter 
to the waiting sharks, sang as they went under." 

Desire, Adventure, Tartar, Ann: 

Standing to America, bringing home 
black gold, black ivory, black seed. 

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, of his bones 
New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes. 

Jesus Saviour Pilot Me 
Over Life's Tempestuous Sea 

We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord, 
safe passage to our vessels bringing 
heathen souls unto Thy chastening. 

Jesus Saviour 

"8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick 
with fear, but writing eases fear a little 
since still my eyes can see these words take shape 
upon the page & so I write, as one 
would turn to exorcism. 4 days scudding, 
but now the sea is calm again. Misfortune 
follows in our wake like sharks (our grinning 
tutelary gods). Which one of us 
has killed an albatross? A plague among 
our blacks--Ophthalmia: blindness--& we 
have jettisoned the blind to no avail. 
It spreads, the terrifying sickness spreads. 
Its claws have scratched sight from the Capt.'s eyes 
& there is blindness in the fo'c'sle 
& we must sail 3 weeks before we come 
to port." 

What port awaits us, Davy Jones' or home? I've 
heard of slavers drifting, drifting, playthings of wind and storm and 
chance, their crews gone blind, the jungle hatred crawling 
up on deck. 

Thou Who Walked On Galilee 

"Deponent further sayeth The Bella J 
left the Guinea Coast 
with cargo of five hundred blacks and odd 
for the barracoons of Florida: 

"That there was hardly room 'tween-decks for half 
the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there; 
that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh 
and sucked the blood: 

"That Crew and Captain lusted with the comeliest 
of the savage girls kept naked in the cabins; 
that there was one they called The Guinea Rose 
and they cast lots and fought to lie with her: 

"That when the Bo's'n piped all hands, the flames 
spreading from starboard already were beyond 
control, the negroes howling and their chains 
entangled with the flames: 

"That the burning blacks could not be reached, 
that the Crew abandoned ship, 
leaving their shrieking negresses behind, 
that the Captain perished drunken with the wenches: 

"Further Deponent sayeth not." 

Pilot Oh Pilot Me 


Aye, lad, and I have seen those factories, 
Gambia, Rio Pongo, Calabar; 
have watched the artful mongos baiting traps 
of war wherein the victor and the vanquished 

Were caught as prizes for our barracoons. 
Have seen the nigger kings whose vanity 
and greed turned wild black hides of Fellatah, 
Mandingo, Ibo, Kru to gold for us. 

And there was one--King Anthracite we named him-- 
fetish face beneath French parasols 
of brass and orange velvet, impudent mouth 
whose cups were carven skulls of enemies: 

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 

Would have the drums talk war and send 
his warriors to burn the sleeping villages 
and kill the sick and old and lead the young 
in coffles to our factories. 

Twenty years a trader, twenty years, 
for there was wealth aplenty to be harvested 
from those black fields, and I'd be trading still 
but for the fevers melting down my bones. 


Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, 
the dark ships move, the dark ships move, 
their bright ironical names 
like jests of kindness on a murderer's mouth; 
plough through thrashing glister toward 
fata morgana's lucent melting shore, 
weave toward New World littorals that are 
mirage and myth and actual shore. 

Voyage through death, 
voyage whose chartings are unlove. 

A charnel stench, effluvium of living death 
spreads outward from the hold, 
where the living and the dead, the horribly dying, 
lie interlocked, lie foul with blood and excrement. 

Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, the corpse of mercy 
rots with him, rats eat love's rotten gelid eyes. But, oh, the 
living look at you with human eyes whose suffering accuses you, whose 
hatred reaches through the swill of dark to strik