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A Testament to Human Suffering: The Book of Negroes and The Witnesses

A Testament to Human Suffering: The Book of Negroes and The Witnesses

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Published by Kristina
ISU Essay I wrote for English Class
ISU Essay I wrote for English Class

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Published by: Kristina on Jun 14, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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A Testament to Human SufferingSlavery is an undeniable part of human history. Since ancient times one societyhas always vied to have dominance over another and subjugate them for their ownends. Although not always manifested in the same way as the captivity of long ago,slavery still exists today in the commercializing of one nation by another.However this is shown to be nothing more than a petty affair between countrieswhen observed next to the words of The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill and TheWitnesses by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The Witnesses: a title that invokesimagery of someone having to witness an unspeakable, horrible event and can onlynumbly recount what was observed. The Book of Negroes: a novel that has all thevictims of this atrocity tell the world what happened. Both pieces capture theessence of the African Slave Trade and vividly illustrate the horror of the marchto the coast of Africa, the harrowing trans-Atlantic journey and the conditions inwhich the captives are kept.The march from numerous villages to the coast of Africa is horrifyingly describedin both The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill and The Witnesses by Henry WadsworthLongfellow. On page 41 of The Book of Negroes it states, “Under my foot was thebody of a naked, decomposing man” and on the following page, “When captives fell,they were untied from their coffles and left to rot” (Hill, 42). Similarly, in theopening stanza of The Witnesses, it states:“In Ocean’s wide domains,Half buried in the sands,Lie skeletons in chains,With shackled feet and hands.”(Longfellow, 1.1-4)Along the long march to the ships, many Africans fell ill and were cut loose andleft to die where they fell. Isolated from anything or anyone that is familiar andalone from the comfort of having another human being beside them. The captives whofall are cast aside and left to slowly and painfully rot away. Both pieces bringthis to the forefront by referring to it so early in their respective narratives.The words in both pieces invoke a feeling of hopelessness that remains throughoutthe tale.Likewise, both compositions make references to the Slave Ship and thetransatlantic voyage. In The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, more space isallotted to this, the second part of the captives’ journey than in Longfellow’sThe Witnesses, since Hill’s writing is, after all, a novel. However, they bothcapture the depravity of the ship. In The Book of Negroes, Aminata observes:“Everywhere I turned, men were lying naked, chained to each other and to theirsleeping boards, groaning and crying. Waste and blood streamed along the floorboards, covering my toes… Piled like fish in a bucket, the men were stacked onthree levels… Men grabbed at me, begging for help” (Hill, 63-64). These chillingobservations show the horrible conditions on the ship that last for the entirejourney. And not all who begin the trip survive. Men are left in dark, dampconditions to slowly rot away. The Witnesses makes this aspect of the voyagepainfully obvious.“Freighted with human forms,Whose fettered, fleshless limbsAre not the sport of storms.These are the bones of Slaves;They gleam from the abyss;They cry from yawning waves.”(Longfellow, 3.10-4.15)Both works illustrate the floating horror of the slave trade. Men are regarded aslittle more than cargo to be tossed overboard the moment their value andusefulness diminishes to the point where they can no longer stand. Both works area testament to something that makes Aminata suppose: “the people of London wouldnever believe” (Hill, 56). That observation could be extended to encapsulate theview of the entire world. In a powerful combination, these works show just how

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