Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Metaphors in Middle Passage (First Short Critical/Goddard)

The Republic, described, and the events on her as she crosses the Middle Passage resembles 1830 United States. The choice of name for the ship crossing the Atlantic from the old world to the new is Charles Johnson’s attribute to poetry: The Republic is anything but what her name indicates. The title of the novel itself, Middle Passage is descriptive as the journey between human exporting West Africa and the slave trade markets in the new world. As metaphor, the Republic becomes more than just a boat to carry characters from one continent to another; it becomes a character unto itself. This character becomes a symbol for society and the subset society at the time. As a metaphor the Republic, is a symbol of desperate preservation of the failing system of slavery in America as the ship is a failing vessel crossing immeasurable distances from one way of life to the next.
Trade ships in 1830 left ports like New Orleans and sailed to European ports with their holds filled with raw materials like timber, cotton, or tobacco. Once empty these ships sailed south to Africa to pick up human cargo for exportation back along the Middle Passage to island markets in the Caribbean. All of these trade ships were designed for cargo, and none for human beings. Charles Johnson’s sets Middle Passage in 1830, long before the abolition of slavery in the United States, yet over twenty years after the exportation of human cargo from Africa is made illegal by both Great Britain and the United States. If conditions were not deadly enough, a ship filled with human cargo, and dangerously depletion of resources, it had to elude law enforcement on the high seas. “To enforce these laws, Britain and the United States jointly patrolled the seas off the coast of Africa, stopping suspected slave traders and confiscating the ship when slaves were found. The human cargo was then transported back to Africa” (EyeWitness). Interestingly enough in 1830 there was no laws forbidding the buying and selling of slaves within the boarders of the United States. Indeed any law enforcement going on in the States at the time included bounty hunters covered under the Fugitive Slave Act returning slaves to their owners. International laws forbidding exportation were the changing of ethics. Ultimately changes comes the death of the old and the birth of the new generations. Captain Falcon of the Republic still lives with his personal history and ethics in 1830 as he presides over the helm and cargo of his ship. “From what I was able to piece together, the nation was but a few hours old when Ebenezer Falcon was born, its pulpits and work places and pubs buzzing with talk of what the new social order would be” (Johnson 49). As history shows, and is evident even in 1830, the new social order still included slavery, even lacking the introduction of new slaves. Captain Falcon and the crew of the Republic were merely supporting a market demand on a system of human bondage, which was still in place. Despite this system of slavery, change was afoot. Similarly, the Republic, horribly flawed and engaged in wrongful activities is still afloat.
In his initial description of the Republic Rutherford Calhoun, an American freed slave is left dumbfounded. “This wet cavity had a name: the orlop… a soggy pit that assaulted my senses with the odor of old piss riding on the air beside the sickly-sweet stench of decaying timbers” (Johnson 34). Describing the conditions below waterline, Calhoun finds it amazing the ship is sea worthy. What a sailor may see above the waterline of such a ship may be completely different, after all the ship still floats. In comparison with the United States in 1830, the same below waterline filth is revealed in regal southern plantation mansions obscuring views of deplorable slave quarters.
As the progress of plot in Middle Passage moves from one side of the Atlantic to the next, the relationships aboard the Republic shift. Initially the stow-away Calhoun gains the enlightenment of a seaman and American. Moving into the port of Bangalang with the experience of crossing from the new world, his world and into the old, Calhoun hears warning. “Better yuh keep your noodle down, Illinois. He was instantly sober, his grip on me tight as a winch. Or yuh’ll be sold too. Stolen right off the ship, I’m saying, and pressed into a gang. It’s happened before. These blokes don’t know you’re a sailor. And they don’t care” (Johnson 60).
Potential change of ownership of Calhoun from himself to that of a slave trader is not different to the ensuing events of the Republic itself. Once the ship has procured its African cargo and sets sail across the middle passage, another change of ownership occurs. After the uprising, and mutiny, captain Falcon is overthrown and the Republic is commandeered by the Africans. The shift is as such; the slaves were considered cargo and the crew considered men and respectively their roles change. Despite these events, the Republic continues to sail, and Calhoun sees the ship almost as a living entity. “At times, late at night on calm waters, I almost thought I heard her weeping for herself and our pitiful skeleton crew of half-starved ex-slaves” (Johnson 152). As a representation of life aboard the ship “the Republic was, above all else, a ship of men” (Johnson 41). To use this example superimposed on the United States in 1830, the idea of a change of ownership is key. Mutiny on board a ship is only a microcosm; mutiny in an entire country is more complicated. Mutiny in the United States crosses borders and ideologies. For slave states, like slave traders, it is a way of life, a way of generating money. To the slave traders of New Orleans, the Republic’s ultimate owners, captain Falcon explains: “Every plank and piece of canvas on the Republic, and the cargo she’s carrying… belongs to the three blokes who outfitted her in New Orleans and pay our wages” (Johnson 147). The implication here, of course being the ships crew and captain operate under a grander and stronger force than anything on the ship itself. The loss of such a ship is the loss of money, at least for the three blokes back in New Orleans. The same is true for the institution of slavery in the United States: the three blokes are symbols for the growing demand worldwide for American resources such as cotton and tobacco. The mutiny as well as a change of ownership began before and after the events on the Republic’s fitful voyage in 1830. The change of ownership in America came with strengthened international law forbidding exportation, and changing domestic attitudes of the ills of slavery in a country where all men are created equal, change of ownership is in the form of change of thinking. Mutiny? Descent in government and the ensuing civil war spared over differences in thought is no different from the events leading to the mutiny aboard the ship.

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

"Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2000).

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