Our bulkheads bulged with cotton and our masts were stepped in gold --
We ran a mighty merchandise of niggers in the hold;
The white foam spun behind us, and the black shark swam below,
As we gripped the kicking sweep-head and we made the galley go.
It was merry in the galley, for we revelled now and then --
If they wore us down like cattle, faith, we fought and loved like men!
As we snatched her through the water, so we snatched a minute's bliss,
And the mutter of the dying never spoiled the lover's kiss.
Our women and our children toiled beside us in the dark --
They died, we filed their fetters, and we heaved them to the shark --
We heaved them to the fishes, but so fast the galley sped
We had only time to envy, for we could not mourn our dead.
Bear witness, once my comrades, what a hard-bit gang were we --
The servants of the sweep-head, but the masters of the sea!
By the hands that drove her forward as she plunged and yawed and sheered,
Woman, Man, or God or Devil, was there anything we feared?
Was it storm? Our fathers faced it and a wilder never blew.
Earth that waited for the wreckage watched the galley struggle through.
Burning noon or choking midnight, Sickness, Sorrow, Parting, Death?
Nay, our very babes would mock you had they time for idle breath.
But to-day I leave the galley and another takes my place;
There's my name upon the deck-beam -- let it stand a little space.
I am free -- to watch my messmates beating out to open main,
Free of all that Life can offer -- save to handle sweep again.
By the brand upon my shoulder, by the gall of clinging steel,
By the welts the whips have left me, by the scars that never heal;
By eyes grown old with staring through the sunwash on the brine,
I am paid in full for service. Would that service still were mine!
Yet they talk of times and seasons and of woe the years bring forth,
Of our galley swamped and shattered in the rollers of the North;
When the niggers break the hatches and the decks are gay with gore,
And a craven-hearted pilot crams her crashing on the shore,
She will need no half-mast signal, minute-gun, or rocket-flare.
When the cry for help goes seaward, she will find her servants there.
Battered chain-gangs of the orlop, grizzled drafts of years gone by,
To the bench that broke their manhood, they shall lash themselves and die.
Hale and crippled, young and aged, paid, deserted, shipped away --
Palace, cot, and lazaretto shall make up the tale that day,
When the skies are black above them, and the decks ablaze beneath,
And the top-men clear the raffle with their clasp-knives in their teeth.
It may be that Fate will give me life and leave to row once more --
Set some strong man free for fighting as I take awhile his oar.
But to-day I leave the galley. Shall I curse her service then?
God be thanked! Whate'er comes after, I have lived and toiled with Men!