Heinrich Heine on the Slave Trade: Cultural Repression and the Persistence of History

by Robert C. Holub
Citation
Title:
Heinrich Heine on the Slave Trade: Cultural Repression and the Persistence of History
Author:
Robert C. Holub
Year: 
1992
Publication: 
The German Quarterly
Volume: 
65
Issue: 
3/4
Start Page: 
328
End Page: 
339
Publisher: 
Language: 
English
URL: 
Select license: 
Select License
DOI: 
PMID: 
ISSN: 
Abstract:

ROBERT C. HOLUB

University ofCalifornia, Berkeley

Heinrich Heine on the Slave Trade: Cultural Repression and the Persistence of History

On 3 August 1492 Christopher Columbus, born Cristoforo Colombo, set sail from Spain on a voyage he presumed would take him to the coast of Asia. Since at that time the Julian calendar was in use, the actual date ofthe voyage was 24 July 1492, almost exactlyfivehundredyearspriortotheAATG convention that commemorated this event by making its theme European-American relations.! When, a little over two months later, Columbus set foot on an island in the Bahamas, probably San Salvador or Watlings, he inaugurated a connection between Europe and the so-called New World that would have profound effects on world history In the Western World, particularly in the United States, the import of Columbus and his voyages has usually been reduced and subjected to a somewhat racist and certainly Eurocentric ideological hegemony. What most of us learned in schoolboth Europeans andAmericans-and what was still considered the official position in celebrations in Octoberof1992 in the United States, is that Columbus was a valiant explorerwho discovered a largelyuninhabited hemisphere ofthe earth and opened it up to colonization and civilization from Europe. That Columbus was a greedy adventurer who bargained for ten percent of the proceedsfrom allfuturevoyagesalonghisroute to India, that he was primarily interested thereforein enrichinghimselfwithgold and other treasures that would be stolen from the lands he reached, and that he was decisively wrong about so many geographical facts that even in his own day were widely known and scientifically confirmed-these features of his personality and beliefs have usually been neglected in his Eurocentric reception.2

The other great area that has been ignored in ourhaste to celebrate the connection between Europe and the ''New World" is the import for non-Europeans of the socalled discovery. While Columbus's voyages openeduptwo continentsfor settlement, exploration, andrawmaterialsfor Europeans, and while the wealth found in the ''New World" helped to fuel the industrial revolution ofthe Old World, the populations ofthe Third World were dragged into a state of affairs in which they suffered some of the most horrible treatment known to humankind. For most of the indigenous peoples of North and South America, the results of what should properly be called a European invasion of their territory were enslavement, genocide, and economic and spiritual depravity. Other indigenous peoples fared justas badly. Undoubtedly the most horrendous by-product of Columbus's voyages for Africa and Africans was the opening of the slave trade. Indeed, Columbus was himself the inaugurator of the transatlantic trade, although the direction in which he first transported slaves, from the West Indies back to Europe, would be a route seldom replicated in the subsequent four centuries. Inthelogfrom hisfirstvoyage, he notes that he will bring a dozen inhabitants of the islands back to Spain, but later speaks of only seven, adding: "should your Majesties command it, all the inhabitants could be takenawayto Castile, or madeslaveson the island. With filly men we could subjugate

The German Quarterly 328

65.3-4 (Summer-Fall 1992)

them all and make them do whatever we want."3 We canunderstandColumbus'ssuggestion better ifwe remember that the Portuguese, who had obtained the rights to exploit the West Coast of Africa, had been importing African slaves into Europe since the 1440s; Columbus, competing with the countrythathadrejectedhisservices,wants to demonstrate to the Spanish crown that the West Indies are equally exploitable.

The subsequent suppression of the circumstances and impact of Columbus's voyages has had ramifications for almost everything that concerns Western history Eventhe readingandevaluation ofGerman literature has been affected by the repression of the darkest side of the European legacy.Paradoxically, thistendencyalso prevails when the legacy is itself thematized. In Heinrich Heine's ''Das Sklavenschiff," a poem that refers directly to the cruelty and hypocrisy of the slave trade, we encounter a model case of the manner in which literary scholarship unwittingly promulgates a tradition ofrepression. Although recognized by Heine experts as an exemplary piece of socialsatire,thislate poemhasnevertheless received less critical acclaimthanother, less compelling, writings. Compared with "Die schlesischenWeber,"perhapsthe onlypoem in Heine's oeuvre with which it compares as a direct social protest against injustice, it has not fared well at all. It is found less frequently in anthologies and collections of Heine's verse, and it has attracted the attention less often of scholars and critics.t Part of the attraction of ''Die schlesischen Weber"for Europeans hasbeenitsreference to exploitationinGermany, Sinceagood part of Heine's work before 1848 deals with German and European affairs, and since this poem makes reference to a well-known event in 1844, there is some superficialjustification for the interest it has drawn. But thisfocus on Europe'ssubjugationofitsown working class tends to obfuscate the very insights that were most important in Heine's laterwritings: theexportationofEuropean hegemony and exploitation into all corners of the globe. Even among Marxist critics, the "opening of the Indian age," as Peter Hacks's play dubs the post-Columbus era, has beenjudged Eurocentrically as an "advance" of capitalism over a decrepit feudal order, while the plight of the nonEuropean world is virtually ignored.P Heine's "Sklavenschiff," along with other late poems such as ''Vitzliputzli'' and ''Bimini,'' recognized more directly the price that native peoples had to pay for these advances.6

The research that does exist on "Das Sklavenschiff'has tended to concentrate on two issues. The first is the sourcefor Heine's poem. There seems to be a consensus--at least in the older research that concerned itselfwith such matters--that Jean Beranger's poem "Les Negres et les marionettes," either in the original French or in Chamisso's translation ("Die Neger und die Marionetten"), and Prosper Merimee's short story "Tamango" served as Heine's inspiration." Because of Heine's familiarity with French literatureandhis proximityto both authors, it is not unlikely that he was familiar with both works. On closer examination, however, Heine's poem does not appear to be directlydependent on eitherofthese French sources. Berangers poem, which narrates in five strophes the obviously fictitious events aboard an anonymous slaver, is only superficiallyrelated to Heine's, and all similarities can be explained either with reference to generic norms or the historical record. For example, the fact that Beranger has the captain of the slaver speak at the beginning of his poem, and that he, like Heine's supercargo Mynher van Koek, is concerned about the deadlyennui killingoff his slaves, are striking similarities only if we areignorantofthetraditionofanti-slavetrade poetry and historical fact. Several other poems on the slave trade, for example William Cowper's "Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce" or John Greenleaf Whittier's 'The Slave-Ships," likewise begin with the words ofa captain'spersona.f andtheconcernwith keeping slaves alive is ubiquitous in all discussions. Indeed, the melancholia diagnosed by the doctor on Heine's slaver is not necessarily derived from ''l'ennui'' in Beranger's first strophe or the ''humeur melancolique" in the last stanza, since much of the literature on the slave trade makes direct reference to the depressed mental state of the capturedAfricans.f One might add that deepdepressionandtotal apathyare understandable responses to theprospects ofa life in bondage in a foreign land thousands of miles from friends and family. Similarly, Merimee's story, which relates the embarkation, voyage, and mutiny aboard a slaver, contains nothing special that would relate it directly to Heine's poem. What has led some researchers, nonetheless, to postulate a connection,theforced dancingoftheslaves on thedeckoftheship, is a minoroccurrence in Merimee's tale, but more importantly; as I will show in a moment, nothing out of the ordinary in contemporary accounts.l''

The secondconcernofmostcommentary on "Das Sklavenschiff' is to show how the poemfits into Heine'sallegedlyresignedand bitter worldview toward the end of his life. Discussions usually emphasize Heine's altered perspective on the world, the failure of the European revolutions, and his religious conversion, stressing in particularhis pessimism about human nature in general. "DasSklavenschiff'is thenviewedas one in a series of poetic statements about the triumph of evil and foolishness and the concomitant degradation of human beings. Laura Hofrichter's remarks are typical in this regard. Placing "Das Sklavenschiff' together with "Der Philanthrop" and"JungKaterverein fur Poesie-Musik," she contendsthatall threepoems-andundoubtedly others in Heine's late lyric collectionsare similar in that they do not conceal suffering and pain with the veil ofbeauty.11 No doubt, there areconnections between "Das Sklavenschiff" and other writings from Heine's lateryears, and it would be difficult not to recognize that in these works he repeatedly thematizes the ubiquity of inhumanity and pettiness in his contemporary world. But by embedding "Das Sklavenschiff"so firmly into thisgeneralframework of pessimism and despair, most commentators have missed precisely the specificity of "Das Sklavenschiff' to its topic. Unlike Beranger's poem, whose last strophe-untranslatedin the Chamissoversion-makes it apparent thatthe amused slaves are symbolic for all oppressed peoples,12 Heine's "Sklavenschiff" alludes to a series of facts and motifs that remove it from the realm of a general plaint and connect it with actual historical abuses.13 This poem is thus not only, and perhaps not primarily; a part of Heine's pessimism in the ''mattress grave" but, more significantly, a partofhisgrowing understanding of the problems inherent in a corrupt and capitalist European society He does not proceed from a general picture of the world and use the slave ship as a microcosm for miseryandsuffering, as does his predecessor Beranger; rather, he proceeds from a quite detailed and precise knowledge ofslavingthat then confirms and reinforces aspects of his mature worldview.

Inhis letters, we find evidence that"Das Sklavenschiff' is less the consequence of a poetictraditionstretchingfrom Cowperand Southey to Beranger and Whittier than the result of Heine's reading oftravel literature about Africa and slaving. The most direct testimonyoccurson 5November1851, when Heine writes to Georg Weerth, with whom he corresponded frequently about Europe and the New World: "... meistens lese ich jetzt Reisebeschreibungen, und seit zwey Monathen bin ich nicht aus Sengambien und Guinea herausgekommen. Der UberdruB, den mirdie WeiBen einflolsen, ist wohl Schulddaran, daB ich mich in diese schwarzeWelt versenke, die wirklich sehramusant ist. Diese schwarzen Negerkonige machen mir mehr Vergnugen, als unsre heimischen Landesvater, ob sie gleich ebenfalls von Menschenrechten wenig wissen und die Sclaverei als etwas Naturwiichsiges betrachten."14 From the various texts Heine had at his disposal, he must have acquired a good sense for the dimensions and geography of the slave trade. The details in his poem exhibit inthis regard a specificity that exceedsmostotherverseon thistopic, which usually exhausts itself in general condemnations.lf What is unusual about Heine's poemisnot, however, theemphasisonprofit, somethingforwhichhe hasbeenfrequently praised in secondary literature; almost every poem and narrative contain references to the market, to the slaves as commodities,to buyingandsellingofhuman beings, or to trading. The denunciation of thedehumanizedpracticeofpurchasingand transportingmen, women,andchildrenwas widespread by Heine's time. The most importantwritingsagainsttheslavetradehad, after all, been produced in the second halfof the 18thcenturyandduringthefirst decade and a half of the 19th century. By the time Heine pens ''Das Sklavenschiff," officially condoned trading of slaves had been outlawed by all Europeannations for three decades. Indeed, the negative ethical force connected with the purchase ofhuman labor in the form of direct ownership was effectively marshaled by Karl Marx in his comments on the ownership of human labor power. I believe it is probable that Marx utilized echoes from the widespread condemnation of slavery-the notion of the human being! the labor power of the human being as commodity-to censure capitalism by association.

More revealingin Heine's poem thanthe characterizationofAfricansas commodities is the cast ofcharacters and the indirect references to national complicity with slaving. The very first line-''Der Supercargo Mynher van Koek"-identifies the commanding officer as a Dutchman.lf Heine had made various disparaging remarks about the Dutch in earlier works, but this reference is not merely an extension of his aversion to thenarrowmercantilismhe associatedwith the Netherlands. Rather, it reflectsthefairly active role the Dutch played for at least a brief period of time in the slave trade.I? Indeed, during the latter half of the 17th century, the low countries had been one of theleadersin thesaleofAfricansto the''New World." Heine had already made reference to the Dutchconnectionwith the slave trade in Franzosische Zustande. It occurs in a "Zwischennote" written in October of 1832 and is situated in the contextofhiscriticism of aristocratic privilege from his introduction to Kahldorfuber den Adel. Heine is explainingwith some irony that the aristocracy in Germany is not entirely devoid of liberal traits. Todemonstrate the absurdity and inconsistencyoftheir "liberalism"-and the "liberalism" of Dutch slave merchants as well-he compares the attitudes of Graf Moltke, the addressee of Kahldorf's correspondence, and Myn Heer van der Null, a Dutch merchant Heine claims to have met on hisjourneys through Holland:

Der Graf Moltke ist gewiB der festesten Meinung, daB der Sklavenhandel etwas Widerrechtliches und Schdndliches ist, und er stimmt gewiB fiir dessen Abschaffung. Myn Heer van der Null hingegen, ein Sklavenhandler, den ich unter den Bohmchen zu Rotterdam kennen gelernt, ist durchaus iiberzeugt: der Sklavenhandel sei etwas ganz Natiirliches und Anstandiges, das Vorrecht der Geburt aber, das Erbprivilegium, der Adel, sei etwas Ungerechtes und Widersinniges, welches jeder honette Staat ganz abschaffen

.. 18

musse.

Although, as I stated above, the official slave trade had already been outlawed in all European states by 1820, it continued to flourish in illegality well into the second half of the century One must therefore conclude that van der Null-or the person for whom this namestands-wasengaged in anillegal activity. With regard to ''Das Sklavenschiff," this brief reference is important for two reasons: (1) It shows that Heine had some acquaintance with, or thoughts about, the slave trade well before his intensive reading of travelogues in the 1850s. Since the slave trade was a common target ofcondemnation in Europeanliberal circles, it is possible that his reference here is simply the reflection of a general attitude drawn from the circles

whichhe frequented. It is also possible, however, that Heine was familiar with the slave tradefrom morespecificsources. Alikelyand possible source was Albert Hune's twovolume work, Vollstandige historischphilosophieche Darstellung aller veranderungen des NegersclavenhandeZs.19 The author ofthis first comprehensive history of the slave trade, published in GOttingen in 1820, was a Privatdozent at the University of GOttingen, where Heine, of course, had studied in 1821 and again in 1824. (2) This passage connects the slave trade with a general pattern of injustice legitimized by a false appeal to nature. Significantly; in his letter to Weerth, Heine criticizes the African rulers for similarly justifying the abuse of humandignityandrightsbyhavingrecourse tonature ("etwas Naturwiichsiges"). It isthis unreflected acceptance of something as natural that thus connects the aristocracy, the slave traders, and the African kings.

In the course of the next twenty years, Myn Heer van der Null is transformed into Mynher van Koek and given command of a slaverthatobtainsAfricansfrom a portnear the Senegal river and delivers them to Rio de Janeiro. Both ofthese place designations also have a historical significance. The region around the Senegal river was the principal site of French slaving factories when the French were active in the slave trade, while Rio was a central international embarkation and disembarkation point during the first three quarters of the 19th century in a country that imported more Africans than any other country in the world.20 However, despite the specificity of nationalitiesandplaces, anddespiteHeine's alleged conversation with van der Null about his mercantile ventures, the voyage depicted in "Das Sklavenschiff' is not very realistic for the 1850s. By the middle of the last century, it would have been rare that a ship with a Dutch flag would carry slaves, andunlikelythatsix hundred ofthemwould be loadedfrom the Senegalregion.21 Heine's point here, it would seem, is not accuracy to any particular real voyage, but rather an attention to details that emphasize the European nature of the slave trade. Although Heine had occasionally criticized the Dutch in earlier works, his satire is aimed at a mentality that was pervasive throughout Europe for the previousthree and a halfcenturies. Heine is not seeking to highlight the inhumanity of any single European nation. Significant for this poem, and for his later thought in general, isthathe transcends the themeofnationalism,whichhadbeena preoccupation of his for almost 30 years, and begins to frame issues of social injustice in more global terms.

Other details of the poem are similarly unrelated to any specific voyage, but nonetheless proximate to accounts that were readily available in the 19th century. Although the amount of profit that van Koek stands to make seems to be exaggeratedhe states that he can make 800% ifonly half his cargo lives--the records we have indicate that profits could be substantial. Demand for slaves remained high throughout muchofthe 19thcentury; because risks wereconsiderably greater after the slave trade was outlawed, and because the illegality of the trade reduced competition, merchants could often charge significantly higher prices for illegally transported slaves than for those shipped halfa centurybefore. With the absence of regulations concerning sanitation and care, conditions on board a slave ship worsened during the 19th century as avaricious traders-many "upstanding" merchants having deserted slavingsought to maximize profits by transporting more slaves. The logbook of Captain Theophilus Conneau, which appeared in the sameyearas Heine'spoem, indicatesaprofit of $41,719 from the sale of 217 slaves. (The ship sailed with 220.)22 Sample profits on the sale of slaves taken from the last years of legal trade indicate that owners netted between £ 25 and £ 65 per slave in voyages from the port ofLiverpooI.23Although some recentscholarshiphasindicatedthatprofits were modest,24 it is difficult to believe that ownerswould haveenteredthetradein such numbers, and that the trade would have prospereddespiteitsprohibitionforsomany years, ifthe prospects of profit had not been considerable. Heine's supercargo mayexaggerate, but the figures he calculates in his cabin are probably only a reflection of the common expectations of enormous profits.

AmongtheotherdetailsthatHeine lifted from reports known to him were the descriptions of the surgeon van del' Smissen. We might note first that it was common on voyages transporting slaves for a doctor to be present. Particularly during the era of legal slaving, many companies required a physician. Indeed, Rawley reports that ''the Dutch appear commonly to have had surgeons aboard," and that frequently serving on a slaver was something like an apprenticeship before employment in a hospital or at a university:25 Among the surgeon's dutieswas a dailyreportto the captain, such as the one van del' Smissen gives to van Koek. Since surgeons were often paid accordingto the number ofslaves that arrived healthy in the New World (which was called head money), they, too, had a stake in keepingtheirAfricancargohealthy.Van del' Smissen'sreportofdeath andofthe disposal of bodies, which are then eaten by sharks, is documented in several travel accounts, and the diagnosis of melancholia, which at least one doctor felt was the cause of dysentery, was, as noted above, frequent aboard slavers.26 Perhaps the most frequently noted characteristic ofslave ships is alluded to in van del' Smissen's briefexplanation of why the slaves are themselves responsible for their own demise: ''Ihr schlechter Odem hat die Luft / 1m Schiffsraum so sehr verdorben" (1. 67-68). That the air emanating from the ship's storage cabin was bad, although obviously not due to the foul breath ofthe slaves, was well documented in many accounts. The report of Dr. Jose E. Cliffe, native of the United States, naturalized citizen of Brazil, who testified before the Select Committee ofthe House ofCommons in 1850, emphasizes the poor air quality When asked about the high mortality, he attributed it in part''to the confinement and foul air."27 Since temperatures in the hold reached 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and sincebodilyexcrementanddeadbodieswere removed only periodically, the "fetid state of the atmosphere" is quite understandable. Indeed, one of the few accounts written by a slave, Olaudah Equiano's autobiography, mentions twice the ''pestilential stench of a Guinea ship."28 Ransford's monograph on the slave trade sums up the dominant attitude as follows: "Sailors said that a slave ship could be smelled a mile awayatsea and nearly all accounts stress the fetid stench that wafted out of a slaver's hold and then hung about the ship like a sickening blanket."Van del' Smissen's comments, far from being a product of Heine's fantasy or a reflection of his own depressed state of mind in the "mattressgrave," are actuallyclose to the written testimony available to him.

Undoubtedly, the element that has attractedgreatest critical attention in Heine's poem is thedanceoftheslaves.Theproblem that van Koek and van del' Smissen face is the risingrateofmortalityamongtheslaves. Wemight recall thatin Beranger'spoem the same predicament is "solved" by amusing the slaves with a marionette show in which the victory of the black devil over Polichinelle raises their spirits. This staging of a Punch-and-Judy show on board ship appears to be a total invention on the part of Beranger, but it obviously fits in well with his allegorical message of pacifying the oppressed with glitter and false dreams. Because critics have assumed Heine's dependence on Beranger's poem, andhave believed that Heine, like his French predecessor, was impartinga general message about evil or hegemonic relations in the world, the decision of the Dutch sailors to have the slaves dance has been viewed as a cruel variant of the marionette show. Most comment on these passages of the poem, which comprise a good deal of the second part, considers the dance to be a literary motif with high symbolic value. Brian Murdoch, whose knowledge of the slave trade appears to be drawn from poetry and from the Encyclopedia, considers the danse macabre to be one of Heine's "literary allusions that go beyond the historical context." He likens it to Psalm137 andconcludes that in its wider context it is "an indictment of the human tendency to inhumanity and hypocrisy in general, or more philosophically ... an indictment of the precarious nature of life itself.''29 Leonard Forster points to a literary relationship with Celan's "Iodesfuge," where, similarly; a group of captives is forced to dance.30 Indeed, Forster argues convincinglythattherearealso othersignificant parallels: for example, between the hypocritical character van Koek, concerned with the perfection of tulips, and the German guard, who writes to his blond-haired Margarethe.31 Jeffrey Sammons, who considers"Das Sklavenschiff""themasterpiece of Heine's relatively few poems of this type," relates the dance to Heine's "own theme of Dionysiac ambivalence and demonic anarchy;"32 thusdivorcingto someextentthespecific historical message from a literary embellishment.33 Finally, Hofrichter finds the tableauofthe dancingslaves to be an appropriate use of a common motif:

DaB im "Sklavenschiff" ein Tanz den Hohenpunkt bildet, ist bezeichnend fur die Rolle, die dem Bilde zukommt. Denn das Bild ist, in diesem Zyklus wie in allem anderen, untrennbar mit Heines Fuhlen verschmolzen. Der zur larmenden Musik von Steuermann, Koch, Schiffsjung und Doktor erzwungene Tanz ist ein Sinnbild fur die fiirchterliche Degradierung des Menschen, die Vergewaltigung des Besten in ihm, denn Tanz ist bei Heine immer mit dem Begriff des Kunstlerischen, des Sch0:Rferischen, des Lebensvollen verbunden.

Only in selected works of more recent commentators-forexample, in the structuralist interpretationby KarlheinzFingerhutor the monograph onsexuality in Heine's poetry by Irene Guy-have I found a recognition of Heine's reliance onthe actual historyofslav

. 35If to .

mg. one were summarize most previous observations on the dance ofthe slaves in Heine's "Sklavenschiff," however, one would have to conclude that it is a literary motif that is drawn from a longer tradition in Heine's works, and thus unrelated to the historical subject thematized in the poem.

Critics areprobably notincorrectintheir remarks on the grotesque dance, and Heine does much to contribute to the hasty conclusion that this is purely a literary motif. His personification of the sharks, who are eagerly awaiting another servingof human flesh (although the mention of sharks devouring slaves thrown overboard, or who throw themselves overboard, is not unusual either),36 and the general bacchanalian atmosphere of lust and revelry suggest a fantastic and poetic origin for this scene. But the critical commentary on this surreal scene reveals simultaneously the Western repression of the real as it pertains to the history of Europe and the New World. Far from beinga productofHeine's imagination, the image of slaves dancing aboard a slave ship could frequently be found in 18th-and 19th-century accounts. Fearing losses from death orillness, and wantingto maintain as healthy a commodity as possible, slave captains andtheir crewoftenpermitted or compelled their captives to "exercise" on deck. The report of Captain Thomas Phillips concerning the voyage of the Hannibal in 1693 mentionstheseexercisesasroutinehygienic measures: ''We often at sea, in the evenings, would let the slaves come up into the sun to air themselves, and make them jump and dance for an hour or two to our bag-pipes, harp, and fiddle, by which exercise to preserve them in health."37 Dr. George Pinckard, who served aboard an English slaver in the last decade of the 18th century, offers a similar account:

Mirth and gaiety were promoted among them: they were roused to bodily exercise, and care was used to divert their minds from dwelling upon their change of state, and loss of home: and I may truly say, that a more general air of contentment reigned among them than could have been expected. While many were dancing and singing, and playing together, others were givini their assistance in working the ship.

Oliver Ransford, citing Equiano's autobiographical writings, points to similar occurrences:

It was considered sensibly prophylactic to exercise the slaves while on deck by 'dancing' them to native drums and xylophones, their activity being encouraged by the whip. One captive (Equine) [sic] noted with surprise that before sailing 'rude and uncouth instruments as are used in Africa' were brought aboard and he only realized the reason for this a little later when he was made to dance to their music on the first day out.39

Indeed, one gets the impression that the practice of exercise through dancing was quite routine. Rawley, in summarizing the measures taken by the Dutch West Indies Company, explains that ''with an eye more to business than to beneficence the company prescribed a healthful diet and a hygienic regimen for the slaves.... Toease their tensions, slaves were given tobacco and conducted in singing and dancing toward the end of the passage.,,40 The striking image that appears in the second section of "Das Sklavenschifi" is thus neitherexclusively literary in origin norentirelydivorced from the historical realities that form the core of the poem. Like most of the details Heine incorporatesinto hissatiricalpoeticaccountofthe slave trade, the image of the dancing slaves is founded in a thorough knowledge ofactual procedures.

The critical reception of Heine's ''Das Sklavenschiff' thus discloses a state of collective amnesia, a deficiency in historical consciousness that is unfortunately paradigmatic for our Eurocentric tradition. Reading the poem primarily as a literary productofan imaginativepoetic mind, most critics (including myself) have previously underestimated the historical accuracy and the factual basis for Heine's creative endeavors. Temporal proximity obviously has something to do with Heine's familiarity

with particulars of the slave trade. If we judge by the success abroad of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom'S Cabin, to which Heine also alludes in his Gestiindnisse,41 there was a good deal of European interest, or at least curiosity, in the topic of slavery in genera1.42 In 1849, France outlawed slavery in its colonies, and many intellectuals followed closely debates on the slave trade and slavery in the legislative bodies ofEurope and the United States. But over the past century and a half, the knowledge that Heine had obtained, perhaps from nosingle or specific source, seems to have become more remote from us. That his later poetry on the New World has usually been treated within the context of a purely literary tradition, and analyzed primarily for its imagery and its thematic consistency with his other works, indicates not only our historical distance from Heine but also, and more disturbingly, our repression of the dark side of a history that was still present to him. In some ways, the critical tradition-andhere I include not only Heine criticism but literary and cultural studies in general-has moved in the opposite directionfromthetrajectoryofanintellectuallike Heine. While he expanded his worldview in his lateryears and became acutely aware of European responsibility for the evils of slavery; colonialism, and exploitation of indigenous peoples, since his death we, his interpreters, have tended to reduce more and more his contributions and our own focus to a narrow European, or even German, scale. Aswestartthesecondhalfofthe millennium that was opened by Columbus's invasionofthe''NewWorld,"perhapswecan hope to recapture the historical insight that formed andinformedHeine'slatepoem"Das Sklavenschiff," and then proceed to a critique, correction, and rectification of the injustice Columbus's voyages initiated.

Notes

ITheconvention was heldin Baden-Badenon 1922 July. A shorterversion of this paper was scheduled to be delivered on 22 July.

2It is noteworthy that in both Europe and the United States a number of publications devoted to Columbusandhisvoyageshavesoughtto counterthe dominant "popular" image. Unfortunately, in the United States these publications seem to have little impact.

3Cited from Hans Koning, Columbus: His Enterprise: Explodingthe Myth (New York:MonthlyReview Press, 1976) 51-53.

4tJypical in this regard is Hans Kaufmann, who devotes seven pages to "Die schlesischen Weber" and mentions "Das Sklavenschiff" onlyonce in passing. See Hans Kaufmann, Heinrich Heine: Geistige Entwicklung und kiuistlerisches Werk (Berlin and Weimar: Aufbau, 1976).

5For a non-Eurocentric view of the economic developments in the world, see Samir Amin, Eurocentrism, trans. Russell Moore (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989).

6For an excellent interpretation of ''Vitzliputzli'' and of Heine in Latin America, see Susanne Zantop, "Lateinamerika in Heine -Heine in Lateinamerika: 'das gesamte Kannibalencharivari',"Heine-Jahrbuch 28 (1989): 72-87 and"Colonialism, Cannibalism, and Literary Incorporation: Heine in Mexico," Heinrich Heine and the Occident: Multiple Identities, Multiple Receptions, ed. Peter Uwe Hohendahl and Sander L. Gilman (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991) 110-38. For a discussion of"Bimini," see Robert C. Holub, "Heine and Utopia," Heine-Jahrbuch. 27 (1988): 86-112 and "Heine and the New World," Colloquia Germanica 22 (1989): 101-15.

7Beranger's poem is found in his tEuores completes, vol. 3 (paris: Perrotin, 1834) 221-23. Chamisso's translation is more an adaptation than a direct rendition; only the first four stanzas were translated. See Chamissos Werke, ed. Hermann Tardel, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Bibliographisches In stitut, n.d.) 141-42. Merimee'sshort story appeared originally in 1820 and can be found in his collection Mosaique (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1888) 59-100. See AndreMeyer, "Une Poesie de Heine et une nouvelle de Merimee," Revue germanique 15 (1909): 83-87 and Barker Fairley, HeinrichHeine: AnInterpretation (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1954) 127: ''for 'Das Sklavenschiff' he [Merimee] was, with Tomango, probably the chief source." Fairley's is an odd interpretation; he contends"that it is the sharks that give the poem its brutality," thus deflecting attention, as Heine does not, from the real horrors of the slave trade.

BWilliam Cowper, "Sweet Meat Has Sour Sauce or, The Slave-Trader in the Dumps," The Complete Poetical Works ofWilliam Cowper, ed. H. S. Milford (London: Henry Frowde, 1905) 374 and John GreenleafWhittier, ''The Slave-Ships," The Complete Poetical Works ofJohn GreenleafWhittier (Boston: James

R. Osgood.and Company, 1876) 39-40.

9See Oliver Ransford, The Slave Trade: The Story of'Iransatlantic Slavery (London: JohnMurray, 1971)

88: "The captains were concernedtoo when the slaves went down with what was rather quaintly termed 'fixed melancholy,' especially as it could spread with alarming rapidity. In this condition the Negroes simply lost heart; they exhibited complete negativism and mutism, and lay about in an apathy which usually ended in death."

10For a comparison of "Ibmango" with Heine's poem, see Marian Musgrave, "Heinrich Heine's AntiSlavery Thought,"Negro American Literature Forum 6 (1972): 91-93. In the commentary to "Das Sklavenschiff" in Heines Werke, ed. Stuart Atkins (Munich: Beck, 1978) 2: 1260, Stuart Atkins calls attention to an important pictorial representation of the slave trade, J.M.W. Turner's painting, "Slaves throwing overboard the dead and dying-1)rphoon coming on," which was displayed inthe Royal Academy in London in 1840. Although the painting bears some remarkable similarities with Heine's poem-perhaps the most noticeable element being the presence of sharks around the slaver-we have no indication that Heine was familiar with it. Because the motifs that Heine used were common knowledge for those concerned with the slave trade, it is unnecessary to assume direct influence. It is just as likely that 'Iurner and Heine merely drew from the same sources.

11Laura Hofrichter, Heinrich Heine: Biographie seiner Dichtung (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1966) 174. Perhaps the most unusual interpretation is Gerhard Schmitz'sin Uber die okonomischen Anschauungen. in Heines Werken (Weimar: Arion, 1960). In contrast to most Western critics ofthat era, Schmitz recognizes the importance ofthe actual slave trade for Heine's poem, but blinded by Marx's comments on original accumulation of capital, he views "Das SklavenschifI" as a comment on preindustrial Europe, There is nothing in the poem to indicate that Heine's setting is in the past; it is just as likely that he was making reference to the current abuses of the illegal slave trade as that he was commenting on the era of early slaving.

12Ainsi, voguant vel'S l'Amerique OUs'aggraveront leur destins, De lew' humeur melancolique Us sont tires par des pantins. 'Ibut roi que la peur desenivre Nous prodigue aussi les joujoux. N'allez pas vous lasser de vivre:

Bons esclaves, amusez-vous.

13Heine did use the slave trade as a general metaphor, as Berangerhad done, in the 18205 in Die Reise von Munc1ren nach Genua. With regard to the revolt of the people in 'Iyrol in 1809, he comments: 'Trostet Euch, anne Schelme! Ihr seid nicht die einzigen, denenetwasversprochenworden. Passiertes doch oft auf groBen Sklavenschiffen, daf man bei groBen StUrmenund wenn das Schiffin Gefahr gerat, zu den schwarzen Menschen seine Zuflucht nimmt, die unten im dunkeln Schiffsraum zusammengestaut liegen. Man bricht dann ihre eisernen Ketten, und verspricht heilig und teuer, ihnen die Freiheit zu schenken, wenn dureh ihreTitigkeitdas Schiffgerettet werde. Die blOden Schwarzen jubeln nun hinauf ans Tageslicht, Hurra! sie eilen zu den Pumpen, stampfen aus Leibeskriften, helfen, wo nur zu helfen iet, klettern,springen,kappendieMasten,windendie Taue, kurz arbeiten so lange, bis die Gefahr voriiber ist. Alsdann werden sie, wie sich von selbst versteht, wieder nach dem Schiffsraum hinabgefiihrt, wieder ganz bequem angefesselt, und in ihrem dunkeln Elend machen sie demagogische Betrachtungen iiber Versprechungen von Seelenverkaufern, deren ganze Sorge, nach iiberstandener Gefahr, dahin geht, noch einige Seelen mehr einzutauschen." Heinrich Heine, Siimtliche Werke, ed. Klaus Briegleb (Munich: Hanser, 1968-1976) 2: 336. In contrast to the poem "Das Sklavenschiff," Heine is usinghere a parallelbetween slaves/subjects and slave dealers/rulers that Beranger alsoused in his poem. It is quite possibletherefore that Beranger, whose poem Heine may have read at this time in the original French, was the inspiration for thispassage,butunlikelythat"DasSklavenschiff" contains anything more than a faint echo of Beranger's verses.

14Heinrich Heine, SiiRularausgabe, (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1972) 23: 148. The tenor of the correspondence between Heine and Weerth is significant for Heine's later works. After the failure of the revolution, both poets appear to widen their horizons, looking beyond Germany and its petty problems. Weerth in particular expresses frequent discontent with Germany and fascination with the non-European world. In June of 1851, for example, he writes to Heine concerning the changing economic picture: "In Kalifornien ist ein miichtiges Reich entstanden in zwei Jahren. Die Produktion del" Australischen Kiisten ist inkurzer Zeit so sehrgesteigert, daB schon jeztdieWolle unsrer Antipoden das Produkt del"adlichenSchafziichterimHerzenvon SachsenundSchlesien zu verdriingen anfangt.... Dann beginnt del" groBe Kampf;nichtdel"Kampfdes Christenthumsmit dem Heidenthum; del"Welfen mit den Gibellinen, del" Whigs mit den Torys; nein! es heiflt: Kampfzwischen dem Golde des Ural und dem Golde Kaliforniens; Kampf zwischen russischem und amerikanischem Getreide; Kampf zwischen australischer und deutscherWolle;KampfzwischenderBaumwolleunddem Flachs; Kampfzwischen den westindischen Kolonien und der deutschen Runkelriibe!" Srikularausgabe 26:

296. Unfortunately, only one of Heine's letters to Weerth, the one cited here, has been preserved.

15This specificity was alreadypointed out in 1960 by Walter Prochaska in an essay entitled '"Ich nahm den 'Ibten die Eisen ab ...': Quellenmaterial fUr den Lehrer zu Heinrich Heines Gedicht 'Das Sklavenschiff","Deutschunterricht(Berlin) 13 (1960): 584-91. Usingtwo articles on the slavetrade that appeared at the beginning of the 19th century, Prochaska shows in a limited but convincing way that Heine wasfamiliar with many details of the trade. Prochaska's essay is not very well known andhasobviously beenslighted by those critics more concerned with Heine's "pessimism"andwithdemonstratinga consistencyofmotifs in Heine's writings.

16The poem was published in the collection Gedichte 1853 und 1854. Found in Siimiliche Schriften. 6/1: 194-99;here,p.194.

17For an overview and introduction to the Dutch slave trade, see Pieter C. Enuner, ''The History of the Dutch Slave Trade: A Bibliographical Survey," Journal ofEconomicHistory 32.3 (1972): 728-47; also Johannes Postma, "Morality in the Dutch Slave Trade, 1675-1795," The Uncommon Market: Essays in the Economic History ofthe Atlantic Slave Trade, ed. Henry A Gemery and Jan S. Hogendorn (New York: Academic Press, 1979) 239-60.

18Heine, Siuntliche Schriften 3: 225-26.

19Albert Hiine, Vollstiindige historisch-philosophische Darstellung aller VeriiJulerungen des Negersclavenhandels von dessen Ursprunge an bis zu seiner gtuizlichen. Aufhebung, 2 vols. (Gottingen: Johann Friedrich Romer, 1820). The complete title of this impressive early study indicates that its author was a bit too optimistic about the effects of the legal prohibition of the slave trade, which OCCUlTed in most European nations just shortly before Hiine started writing. Although I can find no evidence that Heine knew Hiine or read his work, this work seems to be as likely a source for Heine's knowledge of the slave trade as the essays cited by Prochaska or the various belletristic works that are usually mentioned in connection with "Das Sklavenschiff."

20See An Exposition of the African Slave Trade from the Year 1840, to 1850, Inclusive (Philadelphia: Society of Friends, 1851; rpt. Detroit: Negro History Press, [1969]). The Society of Friends collected documents, among which was a report by Captain Ricketts, stating: 'The Slave trade has recently increased on the east side of this coast [of Africa].... A large quantityofthevessels,almostall ofwhichgofrom Rio de Janeiro, escape without capture" (94). Summarizingvariousreportsfortheyear 1849, the authors concludethatoftheshipsboundtoAfrica 56sailed under the Brazilian flag, 32 under the US flag, 27 under Sardinia, 18 under France, 10 under Portugal, and two under Spain (112).

21Sixhundredisratheratthehighendfor a cargo of slaves, although it is hardly out of the realm of possibility, particularly at the height of the illegal trade. To get an idea of what a typical shipment of slaves was we might consult the figures from the Liverpool trade, which are extremely well documented. From Liverpool, at least, almost all cargoes consisted of fewer than six hundred slaves. See Elizabeth Donnan, ed., Documents of the History of the Slave Trade to America, vol. II: The Eighteenth Century (New York: Octagon Books, 1969) 496-98, 545-46, 642-45.

22Captain Theophilus Conneau, A Slaver's Log Book or 20 }ears' Residence in Africa (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976) 78-79.

23See Donnan II: 631.

24See James A. Rawley, The Transatlantic Slave

Trade:A History (New York: Norton, 1981) 265. 25Rawley 295. 26See Rawley 291.

27An Exposition 150.

280laudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life ofOlaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1789; rpt. Coral Gables, Florida: Mnemosyne Publishing Co., 1989) 1: 62; "loathsomeness of the stench" (p. 75).

29Brian Murdoch, "Poetry, Satire and SlaveShips: Some Parallels to Heine's 'Sklavenschiff"," Forum for Modern Language Studies 15 (1979): 32335; here, p. 328.

3°Leonard Forster, "A Note on Celan's Todesfuge and Heine's Das Sklavenschiff," German Life and Letters, N.S. 24.1 (1970-71): 95-96.

31What Forster does not mention are the frighteningparallels between the actual conditions aboard the slave ships, described in detail by various participants and obviously well known to Heine, and the treatment of inmates at concentration and death campsduringthe Hitlerera. Likemostliterarycritics, hemissesthepoint:Heine'spoem, althoughobviously exaggerated to make a satirical effect, is closer to the sources than critics allow.

32Jeffrey L. Sammons, Heinrich Heine:A Modern Biography (princeton: Princeton UP, 1979) 332-33.

33Sammons emphasizesthe"demonicand amoral quality of music and dance" in"Das Sldavenschiff" as an extension of these themes in Heine's general oeuvre in Heinrich Heine: The Elusive Poet (New Haven: Yale UP, 1969) 405-06.

34Hofrichter 181. See also S. S. Prawer, Heine the TragicSatirist: AStudyoftheLaterPoetry 1827-1856 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1961) 244-45: "The central image of Das Sklavenschiff-the forced, hysterical dance of the negroes while the sharks are alreadywaitingto devourthem-recallsotherimages of 'dancing over an abyss' in Heine's work. . . . The sufferings of the slaves of Das Sklavenschiff are only a more lurid exemplification of the plight of all mankind."

35See Karlheinz Fingerhut, "Strukturale Interpretation und die Tiitigkeit des Rezipienten: Untersuchungen an Heinrich Heines 'Das Sklavenschiff"," Diekussion Deutsch 8 (1977): 281-304 and Irene Guy, Sexualitiit im Gedicht: Heinrich Heines Spiitlyrik

(Bonn: Bouvier, 1984) 247-57. Guy is not really exaggerating very much when she states that every detail ofthis ballad correeponds to reality (p. 248). With reference to van Kook, Fingerhut makes a similar point: "UberdasWiedererkennen del"Redeweise van Kooks wird del" zeitgenossische Leser also nicht mit einer fremden, sondern mit del"geliiufigen Sprachregelung del"eigenen Gesellschaft konfrontiert" (p. 292). Both Guy and Fingerhut are less concerned about the Eurocentricattitudeofcritics,however, thanaboutother matters: in Fingerhut's case, the structural systemin theinterpretationandreceptionofthepoem;in Guy's case, thechangein attitudetoward sexualitythatthis poem signals. Guy's observations on the dance are perceptive with regard to Heine's oeuvre. She contends that the sensual and autonomous dance of earlier works is replaced in "Das Sklavenschiff" by a dance that entails "perverted liberation in a life of captivity" (p. 256). Guy thus recognizes the historical roots of the dance, but the logic of her study compels her to connect it ultimately with the literary motifof dance in Heine's oeuvre. For Fingerhut, the dance is important as a normfor the reader, who will recognize its connection with the actual slave trade. He thus fails to distinguish between the reader in 1854 and the readers/interpreters from later periods.

36WilliamSnelgrave's accountofthevoyage ofthe Elizabeth, for example, contains the following gruesome tale of attempted escape: "In our way we saw two Negroes swinuningfromher [the ship], butbefore we could reachthemwithourBoats, some Sharksrose from the bottom, and tore them in Pieces." Cited in Donnan II: 357.

37Cited in George Francis Dow,Slave Ships and

Slaving (Salem, Mass.: Marine Research Society, 1927) 67. 38George Pinckard, Notes on the West Indies (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1806)

233. 39Ransford 90. 40Rawley 95. 41Stimtliche Schriften 6/1: 48Q-82. 42Heine's most extensive remarks on slavery

occur in the secondpart of his Denkschriftfor Ludwig Borne. There he praises the absence of an aristocracy in "America" and the equality of persons under the law, but notes that a few million people of color are "treated like dogs." He then makes a rather peculiar comment, stating that slavery itselfdoes not trouble him as much as the discrimination againstfree blacks and mulattoes and the religious hypocrisy ofthe other Americans. See Siuntliche Schriften 4: 38-39. Although it is not quite clear why Heine seems to prefer actual slavery to discrimination, one canimaginethat he found slavery in the Southern states more in keeping with his image of America as a "gigantic prison of freedom" (ungeheures Freiheitsgefiingnie) and thus perhaps less hypocritical than the pretense of equality in the Northern states.

Comments
  • Recommend Us