The Slave-ship

Text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Translated into English by Joseph Massaad 

deutsch - franšais

The supercargo Mister van Koek
Counts, in the cabin where he sits;
He calculates the value of his cargo
And its probable profits.

"The rubber is good, so is the pepper;
I have three hundred sacks and barrels, at least;
I also have gold dust and ivory -
However, the black ware is the best.

I exchanged six hundred Niger
Dirt-cheap at the river Senegal.
Their flesh is hard, their tendons tight,
Like the best casting of metal.

For this exchange, I gave brandy,
Glass pearls and stuff made of steel;
If only half of them remain alive,
It would be an eight hundred percent profit deal.

If only three hundred Niger make it
To the harbour of Rio de Janeiro,
I would cash one hundred ducats per head,
Paid by the company Gonzales Pereiro."

Someone suddenly enters his cabin
And Mister van Koek's dreams are gone;
It is Doctor van der Schmissen,
The ship surgeon.

He is a bag of bones,
And his nose is full of red warts
Well, ship doctor, says van Koek,
How are my beloved blacks?

The doctor thanks for the question and says:
" I have come, before it is too late
To inform you that since last night
Three is a big increase in the mortality rate.

On average, two died every day,
But today seven are dead,
Four men, three women - I have noted
This loss immediately in my pad.

I examined the bodies thoroughly,
To ensure that they were dead;
It's because these rascals often pretend
And prefer to be thrown overboard, instead.

I removed the irons from the dead
And did my usual thing,
I let the bodies be thrown into the sea,
Very early in the morning.

In great numbers, shark shot out,
A whole herd out of the water;
They like so much the Negro flesh:
Each of them is my boarder.

They followed the ship's wake,
Since we left the coast;
These beasts scent the smell of corpses,
Which they sniff with a hungry lust.

It is amusing to watch,
How they snatch the dead;
The one grabs a head, the other a leg,
The others swallow the shred.

When all is swallowed, they turn
Satisfied around the ship's planks,
And stare at me, as if
They wanted to say thanks."

Van Koek interrupts with a sigh:
How can I reduce this evil fate?
How can I stop the progression
Of this mortality rate?

The medic replies: "It is my own fault
If many Niger have died; I am told
That their bad breath has poisoned
The air in the ship's hold.

Many died of melancholy, as well,
Because they are so dead bored;
With some air, music and dance,
Their illness could be cured."

With this, van Koek shouts: "Its a good advice!
My dear ship surgeon, no wonder
Is as clever as Aristotle,
The master of Alexander.

The president of the society
Of tulips grafting in Delft
Is very clever and yet he has not
Half of your own intellect.

Music! Music! The Niger must
Dance right here on the deck.
And those who are not amused by hopping,
The whip will keep them in check."


Many thousand stars look down,
From the high canopy of heaven,
Shining, nostalgic, big and smart,
Like the eyes of beautiful women.

They look at the sea, down there,
Covered all over with a phosphorous
Shine of purple fragrance;
The waves coo voluptuous.

Not one sail flutters on the slave-ship,
It stands as if it were unrigged;
And yet the lanterns shimmer on the deck,
Where dance music can be heard.

The helmsman plays the violin,
The cook plays the flute,
A young seaman is beating a drum,
The doctor is blowing the trumpet.

A good hundred Niger, men and women
Yell, hop and madly around, they circle,
And with every one of their jumps,
The irons rhythmically jangle

They stamp on the floor with great fury,
And many a black beauty queen
Voluptuously enlaces her naked partner,
With a moan and a groan in between.

The jailer is maitre des plaisirs,
He stimulates any dancing lull
With a stroke of his whip, till
Again all dancers are cheerful.

And Diddeldumdei and Schnedderedeng -
The noise attracts from the deep
The monsters of the water world,
From where they stupidly sleep.

Several hundred sharks arrive,
Swimming and drowsy in their head;
They stare at he ship above,
They are astonished and amazed.

They notice that the breakfast hour
Has not arrived, as yet.
They yawn with their throat wide open,
Their jaws are planted with a saw tooth set.

And Diddeldumdei and Schredderedeng -
There is no end to the dance:
The sharks are overcome by impatience,
And bite their own tails in a trance.

Like many of their breed, I believe
That they don’t like the music's tone.
Trust no beast that dislikes music!
Said the great poet from Albion.

And Schredderedeng and Diddeldumdei -
The dance seemingly never ends:
At the foremast stands van Koek
And in a prayer he joins his hands:

"For Christ's sake, Oh Lord spare
The lives of the black sinners now;
If they have maddened you, it is only because
They can be as dummy as a cow.

Spare their lives, for Christ's sake,
He who has died for us on the cross!
' Cause if I have less than three hundred left,
My business will be a total loss."