The Slave Dancer Essay, Research Paper
It all began in the cold month of January, 1840, in New Orleans. Fog laid a heavy blanket on the streets and alleyways of the city. Rain steadily engulfed the seaside locality, and the sound of drunken riverboat men and the slaves celebrating their festivities surrounded the area. New Orleans was where Jessie Bollier lived, and was the place where he was captured on that dark January evening. Jessie then found himself aboard The Moonlight, the slaver with its towering sails and masts, cabins and storage space under the deck. These were places where Jessie had to ‘dance the slaves’ and where the captain and crew would spend many weeks living in fear of the slaves, of each other, and of getting caught. In the Bight of Benin, on the rugged coasts of Africa, where the multitudes of slaves were captured and mistreated. The crew then made their way across the Atlantic once again to land in the Gulf of Mexico. The Moonlight was anchored there and stayed because it was here where the ship submerged. Two of the survivors washed up on the shores of Mississippi, who were Jessie and Ras meet Daniel, their soon to be friend. Ras was a slave Jessie befriended while on the ship. The Slave Dancer is written through Jessie’s eyes, and projects a depressing, melancholy mood. It is the tragic song of the slaves and the mistreatment of Jessie and the slaves.
The hero of the story is the thirteen year old boy, Jessie Bollier. “He’s a fearful runt,” comments Captain Cawthorne. He is brought on board the slaver to make the slaves dance, to keep them healthy. Jessie innocent and does not fully understand his purpose. “My life had turned upside down. My friend was a man who pressganged me. I disliked the man who befriended me.” Jessie does not realize what is going on within him. He does not realize that these men, these women, and children are slaves…are owned. He does not perceive the cruel treatment of the slaves, but does not know why. Jessie himself puts it best, “My stomach rebelled.” The antagonist is surprisingly Jessie, but after the voyage. He went through many changes after the excursion. “At first, I made a promise to myself: I would do nothing that was connected with the use of slaves…but everything I considered bore the imprint of black hands.” In the war between the states Jessie fought for the Union. He moved to Rhode Island and began a new life. However, he could never forget his horrible past. He was in continual search for his slave friend, Ras, wherever he made his way. He had matured in a way all of us should look up to. He matured in the light of love, strength, wisdom, and loyalty to his heart and to peace.
There were various secondary characters in The Slave Dancer because there were so many important roles. Captain Cawthorne, the captain of The Moonlight, was a short, very moody, very ambitious man. He was respected-a fine seaman. The captain’s purpose was to guide the ship to Africa, and trade rum, tobacco, and other items in exchange for slaves. he was then to bring them to Mexico to sell to the Spanish and return to Charleston without getting caught. It is known that the captain must have a first mate. In this case it was the lucky Nicholas Spark. He kept to the captains side like a shadow. Spark was a very thin man with a “paper voice.” Nicholas got into a fight with a black slave while aboard the ship and shot him. The captain was furious, so he dropped Spark into the deep waters below. There was Adolph Curry who’s main reason for traveling on the ship was to cook. Jessie described him as,”…a terribly thin man. His skin was the color of suet except for uneven patches of salmon along the prominent ridges of his cheekbones.” Another member of the crew was Ned Grime who was older than the other men. Ned was a carpenter and somewhat a doctor. Grime talked as if he had nothing to do with the trading of the slaves, yet he was paid the same amount as the rest of the men on the slaver. Ned once said, “My heart’s not in it.” Claudis Sharkey was the man who captured Jessie off the streets of New Orleans and wrapped him in a big sack. He was tall with a black beard. Claudis told Jessie the “illegal” truth about slave trading. Now comes to Benjamin “Saint” Stout. Stout was the biggest hypocrite in the slave trading business. He would commit repulsive acts on board The Moonlight and let others suffer for his actions. Ben was a tall, heavy-limbered man, and after Nicholas Spark was thrown over board, Stout became the mate. But of all the crew members, Clay Purvis was the only one that Jessie trusted and loved. Purvis had a wide grin and was a noisy “Irish Bucket”…But was harmless. Purvis’ purpose was to teach Jessie the seaman’s ways and become his friend. When the slaves were brought aboard the ship there was one boy, about Jessie’s age, that Jessie felt he was connected to. He was called Ras by his people. Ras and Jessie learned many things about each other, even though they cannot speak the same language. But with body language they communicated and soon discovered the real connection in humans…love. And finally, there was Daniel, a tall black elderly man who befriended Ras and Jessie. He was extremely generous, giving the boys food and clothes. Jessie though Daniel was more than likely a run away slave. All of these characters, even though secondary, play important roles in this Newbery Honor book.
There were many conflicts in The Slave Dancer, however, the greatest conflict is between Jessie and his innersole. As repeated earlier in this analysis Jessie said, “My stomach rebelled.” He was changing inside from his horrifying experience, and he could not comprehend why. Other conflicts in the story were Jessie verses nature and his way back home. Jessie was stuck out in the middle of the Atlantic and for all his mother and sister knew, he was dead. Jessie had trouble also adjusting to the crew and the captain. He had always been around grown woman before the voyage. Jessie was disgusted with the thought of mistreating the multitudes of slaves, and the other men did not care what happened to them. In their eyes the slaves had no feelings…no heart. There was also the struggle between the slaves and the crew of The Moonlight. The slaves had a horrible experience being taken from their homeland, and the crew members tortured them. When the slaves danced Jessie recalls that, “It was like their feet didn’t belong to them.” They didn’t belong to themselves anymore.
The turning point of The Slave Dancer was the appalling ship wreck. The Moonlight was anchored in the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Cawthorne, the crew, the Spanish, whom the captain was trading with, and the slaves were having a celebration. The Captain liked to give the slaves and the men one night of lifting their spirits. In all the commotion an American ship sailed off in the distance. Benjamin Stout thought it was a British ship so up went the British Flag. The British could not board another British ship, but could however board a Spanish. The same went for the Spanish. And since slave trading was illegal in the countries, The Moonlight had papers for proof they were Spanish or British. All they had to do was run up the flag of that country. However, the American ships could board either countries ship. Well, Benjamin Stout was so intoxicated that he suddenly realized that it was American. Just as the ship was in full view, a luminous crest of a wave broke on the boat. A storm was brewing and disaster was about to strike. The crew threw all of the slaves overboard in apprehension, and Jessie and Ras hid in the slave hold under the ship’s deck. The frightening storm continued and the two boys were tossed to and fro. Then the miracle occurred. Jessie spotted land! He and Ras broke loose a plank off the boat and dropped it into the briny below. Then the two of them hurled themselves overboard, and grabbed onto the wood. Jessie looked back and saw that the ship was sinking, with Captain Cawthorne still alive, waving a whiskey bottle in the air. The rest of the crew had died. But I guess the saying is true that the captain always goes down with his ship.
As soon as Jessie and Ras’ feet touched land, the story began to slowly descend. They started walking along the beach when they met an old black man, Daniel. He befriended them, giving them shelter, clothing, and food. He was very nice to the boys. Daniel, being a runaway slave, knew how Ras felt about being taken away from his homeland. Daniel knew that Ras could not stay with Jessie, because the boy would soon get caught. So the man made arrangements for Ras to leave with two men, one who spoke his language, and head North to escape the cruel ways of the South. The climax of the story transpires when Jessie and Ras must say their final good-byes. They spoke briefly and ended their lives together with broken hearts. But the friendship that each of them withheld stayed with them forever. After their last farewell, Jessie then left Daniel with his dreams of heading home. Jessie’s returning home was the fitting denouement. Jessie had truly returned to his familiar life. However, because of his journey, his old life could never be the same.