The Slave Ship

By Heinrich Heine


The supercargo Mynheer van Koek
Is sitting and calculating;
There in his cabin he reckons the worth
And profits to come from his freighting.

"The rubber is good, the pepper is good,
At three hundred barrels we'll set her,
I've gold dust here, and ivory -
The black commodity's better.

Six hundred negroes, I closed the deal
Dirt cheap on the Senegal landing.
The flesh is tough, the sinews are taut,
Like the best cast iron, it's outstanding.

I swapped for them brandy, trinkets and beads,
It's such a bargain I'm driving;
I'll come out ahead eight hundred percent,
With only the half surviving.

If only three hundred negroes remain
By the time we reach Rio de Janeiro,
I'll be getting a hundred ducats per head
From the house of Gonzales Perreiro."

Then suddenly Mynheer van Koek is torn
From the thoughts of his acquisition;
The vessel's surgeon steps inside,
The doctor van der Smissen.

He cuts quite a figure, rattling-dry,
With a noseful of warts for the viewing -
"Well, nautical-sawbones," cries van Koek,
"Tell me, how are my dear blacks doing?"

The doctor takes note of the question and speaks:
"I'm here with this information,
Mortality rates underwent, tonight,
Substantial acceleration.

On average two a day will die,
Yet today we were seven shorted,
Four men and three women -- I noted the loss,
'Twas at once in my notebook recorded.

I inspected the carcasses carefully;
For often these rogues will fake it,
In hopes that we'll toss them overboard,
To the waves where they think they will make it.

And of course, as usual, I removed
The irons that the dead were adorning,
I had the corpses thrown in the sea
Right early in the morning.

And then, in a flash, there emerged from the waves
An army of sharks to receive them,
They certainly love that negro-flesh;
My pensioners, so I conceive them.

They follow along in the wake of our ship,
From the moment that we are leaving;
The beasts pick up the aroma of corpse
With a snuffling hunger-craving.

It's just the funniest thing to behold,
How they snap up the dead as they follow!
One grabs the head, one grabs the leg,
The scraps by the others are swallowed.

If all is devoured, they bustle about
Near the vessel, so charmingly reckless,
They gawk at me, in a way that appears
That they want to say, Thanks for the breakfast."

Van Koek breaks in, heaving a sigh:
"This evil, how can I prevent it?
This advancing rate of mortality,
Now, how am I going to end it?"

The doctor replies: "It is through their own fault
That so many blacks died on this voyage;
Their extremely bad breath has tainted the air
They must breathe in the cargo storage.

And also some died from melancholy,
A disease that will fatally bore them;
Perhaps some fresh air, some music and dance
Might give us the means to restore them."

Then cries van Koek: "That's good advice!
Old nautical-sawbones yonder
Is smart like Aristotle was,
The teacher of Alexander.

In Delft, the head of the Institute
For Tulip-Refinement, he never
Had half your brains, despite the fact
That he was exceedingly clever.

Yes, music, music! Upon the deck
The blacks shall all dance in their fashion.
And who won't amuse himself, hopping about,
The bullwhip shall give a good thrashing."


High in the azure canopy
Many thousands of stars are swimming,
They gaze from the heavens, shining and wise,
Like eyes of lovely women.

They glance with yearning into the sea,
That a fragrant aura covers
With a purple phosphorescence now;
The ripples murmur like lovers.

No sail is fluttering on the ship,
And idle stands the masting;
But lanterns shimmer upon the deck,
Where dancing-music is blasting.

The helmsman strokes the fiddle now,
The boy has a drum to thump it,
The cook, he plays upon the flute,
The doctor blows the trumpet.

A hundred negroes, women and men,
They gyrate and hollar with 'em,
And as they leap about like mad
The irons klank in rhythm.

They stamp on the deck with riotous zest,
And many black lovelies, shining
In naked pleasure, moan and groan,
Salaciously entwining.

The beadle is Maître des plaisirs,
And uses the whip to good measure,
To stimulate careless dancers, so
As to goad them to cheerful pleasure.

And fiddle-dee-dee and rum-pa-pa-pum!
The din attracts the monsters
Who daftly doze in the undersea world,
They start to arise from down yonder.

Then dazed, amazed, and swimming up,
The sharks come, in great numbers;
They gawk in astonishment up at the ship,
All stupid from their slumbers.

They notice that the breakfast hour
Is not yet here, and they yawn then,
Unlocking their jaws; and the jawbones display
The rows of sawteeth upon them.

And fiddle-dee-dee and rum-pa-pa-pum -
The dancing and wild gyration
Goes on without end, and the sharks begin
To bite their own tails in frustration.

They don't love music, or so I believe,
Their sort prefers to forego it.
"So trust no beast, that loves music not!"
Says Albion's honored poet.

And fiddle-dee-dee and rum-pa-pa-pum -
There's no end to the wild gyration.
Van Koek, at the foremast, folds his hands
In prayerful supplication:

"In Jesus' name, have mercy, Lord,
On the lives of these sinful black chattel!
If they enrage Thee, don't forget
That they're as dumb as cattle.

Please spare their lives in Jesus' name,
Who died for our salvation,
For if I can't deliver three hundred head,
'Twill be my ruination."

 Posted by permission of the translator ~ © 2005


1. Mynheer: A Dutch title of respect, equivalent to Mister

2. Delft: A city in the Netherlands

3. Maître des plaisirs: F. Master of pleasure

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