Arna Bontemps’s "Drums at Dusk" and the Middle Passage

Over the past few months, I’ve been reading the works of Arna Bontemps. Just recently, I finished Drums at Dusk, Bontemps’s 1939 novel about the Haitian Revolution. Rather than focusing entirely on Toussaint and the slave rebellion as he did with Gabriel Proser in Black Thunder, the novel centers on white Creoles and their response to the opening moments of the revolution. Some of the whites sympathize with the slaves and welcome the revolt while others have been tainted by the peculiar institution and view the insurrection as something that must be squashed. In this way, Bontemps follows in the footsteps of authors like Paul Laurence Dunbar whose first three novels focused entirely on white characters. Dunbar’s third novel, The Fanatics, tells the story of two white families residing in Ohio who are caught in the middle of the Civil War. As well, Bontemps’s narrative foreshadows the success of Frank Yerby and his “costume novels” such as Foxes of the Harrow and The Golden Hawk (a novel set in late seventeenth century St. Domingue).

 The above items are important and worthy of further discussion; however, I do not have the time or the space to explore them in great detail here. Instead, I would like to zero in on Bontemps’s description of the Middle Passage in Drums at Dusk. Even though the novel focuses on white characters, I would argue that it should be read, along with Black Thunder, as early progenitors of the neo-slave narrative genre that saw an ascendancy during the latter part of the twentieth century. While we do not see the Middle Passage in the narrative, we do see it through the descriptions of Captain Frounier, a slave ship captain recently arrived at St. Domingue with a new shipment of human cargo from Africa.
When five sick slaves come to the counting house for inspection, Count Armand de Sacy examines them and becomes overcome by the smell of the field hands. Frounier only laughs, telling the count,

[Y]ou should bring a cargo of them across the middle passage in one of my vessels-just one cargo. That would fix that parlor smeller of yours, Count. They say that one reason why God Almighty is against us slavers is because he can’t stomach the reek of our ships when they get about sixty days out in mid-summer. You know they’re pretty crowded down in those holds sometimes, and of course we don’t provide chamber pots. (25)

Frounier’s comments, while mocking, provide a vivid description of the atrocities that occurred during the passage from Africa to the colonies. Later, de Sacy boards Frounier’s slave ship the Hottentot. Again, the stench overwhelms de Sacy, and he tells the captain, “I’ve had about as much as my belly will stand. I’m not squeamish. I like the stable and that sort of thing. But, mon Dieu, don’t open those hatches again till I go onshore” (42). The count’s comments here show that even when faced with the horrors of the passage he maintains his position as a slave owner and does not sway from that position throughout the novel.
As stated earlier, Bontemps does not show the Middle Passage; instead, the image of that trip comes from the mouths of the white characters. What does that say? Why does Bontemps do this? In many ways, it makes me think about the families in Dunbar’s The Fanatics who debate the issue of slavery and the Civil War without ever hearing from African American characters themselves. Unlike Equiano’s description, Bontemps’s relies on the voice of a slaver himself. I’m not totally sure what to make of this right now. What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below.
I’m adding Brother Ali’s “The Travelers” here because it is a song that could be used to help students when discussing the Middle Passage.

Bontemps, Arna. Drums at Dusk. Eds. Michael P. Bibler and Jessica Adams. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009. Print.

 

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