Monday, January 22, 2007

Bondage in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (Annotation G1-2/Goddard)

Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage inspires a spirit of high adventure early on, and creates a tragic depiction of sea life throughout. Set in 1830 he paints the horrors and perilous dementia which is bound to board any ship on long voyages. This historically set novel is loaded with fact as well, even its title implies: the middle passage was the end of the trade route between Africa to the new world. Ships would leave the Americas loaded with rum, sugar or any number of raw materials then travel to Europe for delivery, then to African ports to pick up human cargo, lastly taking the middle passage back to the Americas. The middle passage being the most precarious as supplies dwindled day after day creating an environment right for scurvy, dysentery and mutiny. The added danger during this middle passage is simply a cargo hold filled with human beings and even in 1830 after the United States and England made human exportation illegal, no ship was specifically designed to human cargo. Using this historical setting aboard the Republic Johnson weaves a multi-tiered examination of human bondage, on every page, and every conceivable combination.
“Man is the problem, Mr. Calhoun.” (Johnson 96) Ebenezer Falcon, the captain of the Republic tells Rutherford Calhoun the narrator. The depths of both Falcon and Calhoun are their similarities, each aboard the Republic for reasons of bondage. Obviously, during the passage back to The Americas a group of Allmuseri people are bound, but the more insidious bondage lies with the captain and narrator. Bound to the ship the captain explains “Every Plank and piece of canvas on the Republic, and any cargo she’s carrying… belongs to the three blokes who outfitted her in New Orleans and pay our wages” (Johnson 147) His servitude to the ship and her share holders is voluntary. As the return to New Orleans becomes nearly impossible when mutiny ensues and the Allmuseri take control of the Republic, Calhoun realizes the relationship clearly: “but was Ebenezer Falcon telling me that he, at bottom, was no freer than the Africans?” (Johnson 147) Falcon’s bondage goes much deeper, as deep as the past itself: “Once home, we return their boat to them. Anger, we say, is like the blade of a sword. Very difficult to hold for long without harming oneself.” (Johnson 119)
As for Calhoun, a freed slave from Illinois, it wouldn’t make sense to be on a slave ship. His involvement is not as voluntary as his Captain’s. Freed in 1829 Rutherford Calhoun flees to New Orleans where he starts his “free” life. Like Captain Falcon, Calhoun tries to contend with his past, his brother Jackson, the Reverend Peleg and the absence of his father, who were all in circumstances of slavery in Illinois. The escape from his past, as such leads him into more trouble in New Orleans. Entry, the first on June 14, 1830, Calhoun professes the leap from one bondage to another. “Of all things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.” (Johnson 1) More than his past, and his potential present a blackmail marriage to the Boston school teacher Isadora Bailey, Calhoun’s creditors force him to sea. “’You know that li’l boardinghouse for cullud folks run by Mrs. Dupree? I own it. Fact is, I own her, and she tells me you’re three months behind in yo’ rent. And that li’l moneylender Fenton-you know him? I own him too.’” Enter Papa Zeringue, underground lord of New Orleans. Financially speaking, all those who Calhoun owes, owe Papa. Isadora strikes a bargain with Papa, she pays Calhoun’s debts and Papa arranges for her marriage to Calhoun. After a meeting with Papa, Calhoun takes to the bar “after the gin, five pitchers of beer emptied before me; the sailors thinned out, but still I sat, knowing that each hour brought me closer to the bondage of wedlock.” (Johnson 19) In direct action Calhoun steals papers from a sailor and stows away on the Republic.
In Middle Passage only Captain Falcon finds a means of release from bondage. “We heard the shot like the crack of doom on Judgment day… Whose ringed hand, his right, was tight on the trigger of a Philadelphia derringer that had blasted away half his head.” (Johnson 151) As stories of mutiny inevitable go, once the captain dies the perils of the sea become more impressive. Without the captain, the Republic stays the course set by the Africans, and the disease and hardship set in. Calhoun, still mired in his personal bondage, and one set upon him by the mutinying shipmates, comes to the same conclusion as Falcon but does not see it as freedom: “I was dying, no doubt about that, and I did not care for myself anymore, only that my mates should survive.” (Johnson 181) He does not die, perhaps it was all in his attitude, putting his mates before himself, if he had put himself first, he would not have lived to write in the ship’s log. Bondage yes, but after survival and rescue, Calhoun embraces life even with bondage.

Johnson, Charles. Middle Passage. New York: Plume, 1990



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