Robert E. Howard and the Issue of Racism: The African and African-American Poems — Part 5

Slavery, Retribution and Vengeance

Robert E. Howard’s hatred of the slave trade was unequivocal. His poems in this subject area are so vivid they could almost be used as part of the history of the slaves taken from Africa. It is one of the few subject areas in which REH shows no conflicting point of view in his poetry.

The opposite of slavery is freedom and in a letter to Farnsworth Wright. ca. June-July 1931, (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 198) Howard expresses his definition of being free:

I’ve always had a honing to make my living by writing, ever since I can remember, and while I haven’t been a howling success in that line, at least I’ve managed for several years now to get by without grinding at some time-clock punching job. There’s freedom in this game, that’s the main reason I chose it. As Robert Service says in “A Rolling Stone”:

—In bellypinch I will pay the price
But God, let me be free!—
For once I know in the long ago,
They made a slave of me.

Life’s not worth living if somebody thinks he’s in authority over you……

Freedom was also a subject in the discussions between H. P. Lovecraft and Howard during their years of correspondence. In a letter to HPL, (ca. Dec 1932) The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 506) he further states,

If it came to a show-down, I suppose it would be natural for me to throw in with the working classes, since I am a member of that class, but I am far from idealizing — or idolizing — it or its members. In the last analysis, I reckon, I have but a single conviction or ideal, or whateverthehell it might be called: individual liberty. It’s the only thing that matters a damn. I’d rather be a naked savage, shivering, starving, freezing, hunted by wild beasts and enemies, but free to go and come, with the range of the earth to roam, than the fattest, richest, most bedecked slave in a golden palace with the crystal fountains, silken divans, and ivory-bosomed dancing girls of Haroun al Raschid. With that nameless black man I could say:

“Freedom, freedom,
Freedom over me! —
And before I’d be a slave,
I’d lie down in my grave
And go up to my God and be free!”

That’s why I yearn for the days of the early frontier, where men were more truly free than at any other time or place in the history of the world, since man first began to draw unto himself the self-forged chains of civilization. This is merely a personal feeling. I make no attempt to advocate a single ideal of personal liberty as the one goal of progress and culture. But by God, I demand freedom for myself. And if I can’t have it, I’d rather be dead.

With this demand of freedom for himself, the core feeling in the following poems becomes clearer.

First is “Cornish Jack” (undated) with its supernatural aspects. It tells the story of a lustful, cruel man, with a “hell-born soul.” He has cornered a frightened young tribal girl in one of the huts when quite literally, all Hell breaks loose. While the poem does not explicitly state Jack Cornish’s race, lines 5 through 8 could indicate he was actually an African. Africans themselves did play a role in the slave trade. Europeans rarely entered the interior of Africa due to a fear of disease and even more than that, the fierce resistance of the African warriors. It was a common practice for Africans to sell their captives or prisoners of war, usually taken from neighboring or enemy ethnic groups, to European buyers. The poem “Cornish Jack” is a story of revenge and divine retribution.

Away in the dusky barracoon,
A slave shrieked out, for against the moon
He’d seen a phantom leap up, then fade
From the top of the village barricade.
Then through the heavy gate unbarred
Came the massive-limbed Jekra guard.
A savage warrior, a Jekra brave,
He haled by the hair the shrinking slave,
Hurled him before him across a log,
With a rhino lash proceeded to flog.

So when the slave saw arrayed,
Another shape on the high stockade,
He spoke no word, though he gaped with surprise,
Silent—he thought of his welted thighs.
A moment the second phantom stood,

Like a ghastly specter of some dim wood,
Then vanished; still higher roared the din
Of lustful women and lusting men.

Through the deep, dusky shadows back
Of the village huts went Cornish Jack,
From empty hut to hut he stole,
Lust and desire in his Hell-born soul.
Ha! Chopping branches for fuel wood,
In the shadow a slim young woman stood.
Ha! Cornish Jack sucked in his breath,
He knew not his face was a mask of Death.
He knew he was Cornish Jack, the same
That had had his desire of many a dame.

A Thing of horror, a thing of night,
That loomed grotesque in the dancing light,
A midnight horror, a monstrous thing;
Each negro might have taken wing,
For they scattered, they fled, like leaves on the wind
And Devil might take the ones behind.
Still after the girl flew Cornish Jack,
Still the phantom stayed at his back.

Over beneath the high stockade,
Cornish Jack stopped the flying maid,
But ere he touched her, he turned by chance,
And followed her wild, half-insane glance.
Then jungle, stockade, and hut-roof peak
Echoed again with his frightful shriek.
And over the village a strange light shone,
For the Devil had come to claim his own.

Over the wall two phantoms sped,
Out through the jungle two phantoms fled,
They rode on the winds, they soared on the blast,
One fled swiftly, one followed fast.
On and on through the jungle wrack,
Like a flying smoke fled Cornish Jack,
On and on through the jungle dim,
Flaming, the Devil followed him.

And sometimes now, say the Jekra folk,
On a trail of flame and a trail of smoke
Hot on a roaring Hell-fire blast,
The flying twain go hurrying past.
And they say Cornish Jack is past them whirled,
And the Flaming God of the Flaming World.

Truly a tale of the devil coming to claim his own.

“Ju-Ju Doom” (undated) is another tale of retribution and vengeance. This time it’s directed towards Joab Worley, who Howard compares to “a great spider,” making him particularly loathsome.

As a great spider grows to monstrous girth
On life-blood sucked from smaller, cringing things,
So Joab Worley, in his plunderings
Of black folk spawned in nakedness and dearth,
Grew great in all the riches prized of earth;
Dwelling in state, a brother to black kings,
In his great throne-hut, safe from spears and slings;
The deep black jungle echoed to his mirth.

Until he dared to go, in drunken pride,
Alone into the ju-ju hut; all round
The black priests trembled and the drums were beat;
At last they, on their bellies crawled inside;
There Joab Worley lay, without a wound,
Stone dead before the leering idol’s feet.

In his description, REH calls Worley a “brother to black kings” and one who dwells in “his great throne-hut, safe from spears and slings”; but again he’s not clear regarding Worley’s race and there are good arguments for either side. Under the previous evaluation of “Cornish Jack,” it is noted that Europeans rarely ventured into interior Africa because of their fear of disease and the tribes.Another question is the statement “plundering of black folk.” Does this refer to the slave trade or is it stealing what food, weapons, animals or whatever treasures they have. Although there is ill treatment of Africans by Joab Worley, he pays the ultimate price when he dares to go into the ju-ju hut.

In “The Rhyme of the Three Slavers” (undated) the villains are white men who Howard refers to as:

Basest of Satan’s Brotherhood,
Sharks of the slaver’s trade.

The poem itself is another tale of retribution and vengeance. Again, while it is a diatribe directed towards slave traders and those who engage in it, the deaths of the three slavers speak strongly of a poetic justice.

Still and dim lay sea and land
As they rowed from the sullen shore,
Their captive lay, bound foot and hand;
His eyes gleamed as they swore:
“The men-of-war will come again
“But you’ll come never more.”

“The men-of-war will come and go
“Proud ships of the English line,
“But of our commerce they’ll not know
“And none will tell the swine,
“For you’ll be fathoms down below
“The spray of the driving brine.”

“And the word shall go afield and far
“That thus our laws are made
“And a feast for the sharks off Calabar
“The price the traitor paid.
“And this the fate of every man
“That hinders the white man’s trade.”

Far on the still bay’s dusky blue
Rocked by the drowsy tide
Their daggers pierced him through and through
And they flung him overside.
His eyes were hells as he sank to death
And he cursed them as he died.

They weighed their anchor and sailed at dawn
With the souls for which they’d paid,
Three men, the vilest of Hell’s red spawn,
Fairly and Fall and Slade.
Basest of Satan’s Brotherhood,
Sharks of the slaver’s trade.

And little they recked of the man they slew—
Chief of a fetish clan—
For telling tales of their bloody crew
To the ships of the Englishman.
(But there be deeps of the black man’s soul
No white man’s eye may scan.)

They scattered far o’er the Seven Seas
To glut each blood-stained purse;
They did foul deeds on far blue leas—
All crimes of the Universe.
But ever there followed beneath the tides
The ghost of a black man’s curse.

For Fall was slain by a Somo chief,
His skull was a bushman’s plunder;
Fairly died on a Baltic reef
Where his schooner crashed asunder.
And Slade was drowned off a northern sound
And a black arm hauled him under.

The “men-of-war” Howard is referring to in lines 5 and 7, were the ships of the Royal Navy, which then controlled the world’s seas.

According to Wikipedia, under the British Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain established the West Africa Squadron in 1808 to patrol the coast of West Africa, and between 1808 and 1860 they seized approximately 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans who were aboard. The Royal Navy declared that ships transporting slaves were the same as pirates. Action was also taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade…”

It is noteworthy in this poem that Howard gives tribute to the “deeps of the black man’s soul no white man’s eye may scan” and pays respect to the “chief of a fetish clan.”

Howard’s mention of these special gifts were typical for his time in history. In George M. Fredrickson’s The Black Image in the White Mind (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1971) he notes that in the 1931 book Brown America The Story of a New Race (New York, 1931) the author, Edwin R. Embree, who was an architect of philanthropic efforts to aid Negro education and a popular interpreter of black culture, described the Negro as having “gifts of his own quite beyond the American standard.”

These special gifts not only appear in REH’s “The Rhyme of the Three Slavers,” they can also be seen in other stories he wrote. One example is the relationship between Solomon Kane and N’Longa. In “The Hills of the Dead” N’Longa gives Kane a voodoo stick to protect him on his travels. After Kane uses it to banish the Horror in “The Footfalls Within,” he shook his head, “gazing in new wonder at the ancient gift of N’Longa, seeing it at last, not merely a tool of black magic, but a sword of good and light against the powers of inhuman evil forever.”

“A Song of the Anchor Chain” was included in a letter to his friend Clyde Smith in November 1928. It tells the tale of the buccaneer captain who as he lies dying, is haunted by visions of his life as a trader in human flesh (Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 1, p. 241)

Let down, let out the anchor chain,
The gulls are dipping low,
A faint wind rattles stays in vain—
Oh, let the anchor go.
A yellow mist is lying,
A broken wind is sighing
And Captain Gower’s dying—
Oh, let the anchor go!

Carven with ivory rough and rare,
Warped with the sea salt spray,
Glowered the captain’s cabin where
The dying buccaneer lay.

He sought to dream of flying ships
And winds that waver and dart,
But the rattle of death was under his lips
And Hell was in his heart.

And ever the vision rose and fled:
A craft on the outward tack,
And a ghostly skipper who swayed and said:
“No man of our crew came back.”

And ever a vision followed fast—
A ship with a tattered sail
Idly flapping a broken mast—
And a plank was over the rail.

Gower dreamed of the gallows-tree—
In a sloop like a lurching gull
He sailed a weird white haunted sea
Where each wave was a skull.

Gower clutched at a flask of rum,
And dreamed of a bloody moon,
And he heard the evilly muttering drum
In the jungle barracoon.

He heard the whimper of naked slaves
And the crack of the driver’s whip
And the wailing of women and brawny braves
Pent in the hold of the ship.

He dreamed of low long ships that run
From the guns of a man-o’-war,
And a crimson road from the rising sun
To the coast of Calabar.

He saw on the waste of a windy sea,
Strange death lights glimmer and slant
And he sailed for the port of Eternity
With the sailor’s echoed chant:

“Let down, let out the anchor chain,
“The wind is rising slow,
“It’s far to Rio and the Main,
“Oh, let the anchor go.
“Oh, turn her bows for Gades
“To greet the wharf side ladies,
“And Gower’s gone to Hades.
“Oh, let the anchor go.”

Howard vividly uses the sense of sight to describe Gower’s visions as he lies dying. The only other of the five senses he mentions is hearing and it is used to describe what Gower is experiencing in these lines:

And he heard the evilly muttering drum
In the jungle barracoon.

He heard the whimper of naked slaves
And the crack of the driver’s whip
And the wailing of women and brawny braves
Pent in the hold of the ship.

While “The Tale the Dead Slaver Told” (undated) again speaks of retribution and vengeance, it also contains an added element of horror.

Dim and grey was the silent sea;
       Dim was the crescent moon.
From the jungle back of the shadowed sea
       Came a tom-tom’s eery rune,
When we glutted the waves with a hundred slaves
       From a Jekra barracoon.

For a man-o-war, our way to bar,
       Was sailing with canvas full;
From our black wealth the lives we shore,
       Hacked to pieces and hurled swift o’er,
And we heard the glad sharks as they tore
       The flesh from each sword-cleft skull.

Then fast we fled toward the rising sun—
       But we could not flee the dead.
God! Ever behind our flying ship
       Wavered a trail of red.

She sank like a stone off Calabar,
       With all of her bloody crew.
There was no breeze to shake a spar,
       No reef her hull to hew.
But dusky hands rose out of the deep
       And dragged us under the blue.

This poem tells the tale of a British men-of-war that was unable to save the slaves. The real horror of the poem lies in the lines:

When we glutted the waves with a hundred slaves
       From a Jekra barracoon…

From our black wealth the lives we shore,
       Hacked to pieces and hurled swift o’e,
And we heard the glad sharks as they tore
       The flesh from each sword-cleft skull.

Any kind of slavery was unacceptable to Howard. The previous four poems tell tales of the black slave trade and the resulting retributions exacted, in most cases by the slaves themselves. This theme is reflected in the vengeance taken by a galley slave in “Thor’s Son” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard, v. 2, p. 40.) Howard also tells of the horrific treatment of the Roman slaves on “The Road to Rome,” (undated) and when the conquerors became the conquered, we are offered a different view of that same road in “Shadows on the Road” (published in Weird Tales, May 1930.)

Conclusion

Racism in the United States even long after Robert E. Howard’s death in 1936 was a fact of life. It was mainstream thought and was upheld not only by “scientific” theories, but also by Biblical references and possibly most of all, by the need of the Southern States for scapegoats in the wake of the devastation of the Civil War and their anger towards the over 200,000 African-Americans, many of whom were former slaves, who served in the Union army.

This analysis of Africans and African-Americans and racism in Robert E. Howard’s poetry explains and discusses what is in those poems. What is not in them are any references to the KKK or the White Supremacists. Howard wrote over eight hundred poems. The thirty-two of them mentioning Africa and African-Americans were analyzed. Five of them contain offensive racial names. Miscegenation is mentioned in three and of those three, one contains a romantic setting. What’s probably even more revealing are the two or three poems such as the (“A haunting cadence fills the air.”) that acknowledge his own heritage as a black warrior in previous lives. In the majority of poems, like those regarding the Zulu King, Chaka, Howard speaks of his admiration for the African warriors and for Africa itself. In fact, the majority of his poems treat Africa, Africans, and African-Americans with respect and dignity. It’s highly unlikely that a White Supremacist would write sympathetically about Blacks or so vividly of life in the jungle. Most of the poems analyzed are undated and were not published in Howard’s lifetime. In fact, he could have been tarred and feathered, or severely beaten if the KKK found any vestige of sympathy for Blacks.

There’s an old saying that if you “walk like a duck, talk like a duck and act like a duck, you are a duck.” At times, REH talked like a racist in his use of offensive racial slurs and stereotyping language. There were times when he walked like one in that he held mainstream viecrovwpoints about the inter-mixing of blood between the races. Contrast this with his poems that reveals his sympathy for and even his identification with Africans and their tribal life. Definitely not the acts of a racist, even by modern definitions of racism.

Also of primary importance in that old saying is the definition of “duck.” What is racism today was not considered to be so in REH’s era. Sadly, it was, in fact, mainstream thinking. The poem, “The Day That I Die” (undated) contains the verse that is probably most quoted in support of REH’s anti-racism and it supports Rusty Burke’s observation, “Bob seemed to be able to ‘give any man his due,’ judging individuals on merit.” Even in the midst of what was, by our standards today, a racist era, Howard wrote:

That I lived to a straight and simple creed
The whole of my worldly span,
And white or black or yellow, I dealt
Foursquare with my fellow man.

Not a bad epitaph for someone born in the American South on January 22, 1906.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank both Patrice Louinet and Rob Roehm for their assistance in writing this article. I have incorporated their comments and suggestions. Thanks also to Mark Finn for his encouragement and support.

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