Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2119
Thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier, his widowed mother, and his sister live in a one-room home in a poor quarter of New Orleans in 1840. His mother makes a meager wage sewing dresses, and Jessie plays his fife to make a few pennies. He dreams of being rich someday, and although he is curious about the lives of slaves he sees, he is forbidden to visit the slave market and knows little about their daily existence. His mother tells him that despite his family's grinding poverty,
there were souls whose fates were so terrible in comparison to ours, that we should consider ourselves among the fortunate of the earth. I knew she was thinking of the slaves who were sold daily so close to where we lived.
When his mother has to make a dress in a hurry, she sends Jessie out to his aunt's house to get some candles so she can stay up late to sew, but on the way home from this errand, two sailors who have seen him playing his fife kidnap him.
Their ship is The Moonlight, a ship bound for Africa, under Captain Cawthorne, a man so brutal that when he meets Jessie, he bites Jessie's ear hard enough to draw blood. Captain Cawthorne tells Jessie that The Moonlight is a slave ship, involved in a "lucrative and God-granted trade," and that anyone who tries to interfere with it is a pirate. Jessie will play his fife to make the slaves "dance" once they are on board; this exercise will keep them strong and fit so that they will bring in more money when they are sold. In addition, he is expected to help around the ship.
Jessie meets Ned Spark, the ship's carpenter and occasional doctor, who professes to be a Christian but who will profit from the slave ship's voyage as much as the rest of the crew, including the ill-tempered cook; Nick Spark, the Mate, who is as cruel as the captain; and Ben Stout, who says he is sorry for Jessie's kidnapping, talks kindly to him, and gives him extra clothes and a piece of bread.
Once Jessie settles in, he notices that Purvis, who is a good sailor despite his rough manners and teasing sense of humor, is always busy, and he realizes that even though Purvis is one of the men who kidnapped him, he can trust him. Purvis tells Jessie that other ships will try and stop the slave ship from completing its journey. The British, who are against slavery, will board the ship and confiscate the slaves and the profits.
Until now, Jessie has been confused by the crew, who defend the trade, saying that so many ships are involved in it that the laws against it don't matter. Claudius Sharkey, a crewmember, tells Jessie that in addition to the British cruisers that make the trade dangerous, American ships also patrol against importers of slaves. However, the possible profit from these voyages outweighs the danger: "He spread his arms as wide as he could to show me the money the smugglers made after they'd taken the slaves inland and sold them."
Although Ben Stout has been kind to him, Jessie doesn't trust him. Instead, he likes Purvis: "Purvis, with his horrible coarse jokes, his bawling and cursing, Purvis, whom I trusted."
One morning, at dawn, he sees a sailor sneaking forward on the ship, and returning with an egg—part of the captain's private food supply. He is not sure who the sailor is, and soon Purvis is named as the culprit, tied up by Ben Stout and another sailor, and brutally flogged and then hung from the rigging. Later, he finds out that Stout stole the egg, and was happy when Purvis was blamed. When he asks Purvis why he didn't deny being the thief, Purvis says, "The officers of this ship would not care what the truth was."
The Bight of Benin
When the ship arrives off the coast of Africa, all the preparations for taking on slaves are completed. They go up and down the coast, and the captain goes out at night in a small boat and deals with the African chiefs who are selling the slaves.
Jessie is sick of being on the ship, sick of what he learns about the slave trade, and when Purvis asks him to help set up a tarp to provide shade for the slaves when they eat their meals, he refuses: "nearly senseless with rage ... I considered casting myself over the side and confounding them all!" But he gives in because he believes that no one on the ship would save him, and he would die. "I went slowly toward Purvis, feeling a shame I'd never felt before," he says.
Later, when he protests against the slave trade, Purvis becomes violently angry, and tells Jessie that his own Irish ancestors came to America in ships no better than the slave ships—"locked up in a hold for the whole voyage where they might have died of sickness and suffocation ... Do you know my father was haunted all his days by the memory of those who died before his eyes in that ship, and were flung into the sea? And you dare speak of my parents in the same breath with these [slaves]!"
Jessie wonders how Purvis can be so angry about the conditions his parents traveled under, and at the same time fail to see how it's wrong to treat the slaves like this. But Jessie realizes that he can't talk to any of the crew about this; whenever he is upset about slavery, he is beaten.
The slaves arrive. Two of them die, Jessie notes, "and Stout dumped their bodies over the side as I dumped waste." Then a little girl dies and is tossed over the same way. Jessie is horrified, and his punishment when the sailors notice it is observed by one of the slaves, a young boy the same age as Jessie. An instant, unspoken bond forms between Jessie and the young slave boy though they don't speak the same language.
Nicholas Spark Walks on Water
They set sail, back toward America. Every other day, groups of slaves are brought on deck where Jessie plays the fife and Stout whips them to make them "dance," or exercise. He is filled with self-loathing, and also, to his horror, he realizes that he hates the slaves, the symbol of his own slavery on the ship:
I hated their shuffling, their howling, their very suffering!" he says. "I hated the way they spat out their food upon the deck, the overflowing buckets, the emptying of which tried all my strength ... I would have snatched the rope from Spark's hand and beaten them myself! Oh, God! I wished them all dead! Not to hear them! Not to smell them! Not to know of their existence!
He drops his fife on the deck and runs to his sleeping quarters, but he is brought back to the deck and flogged by Stout for his disobedience:
But as the blows fell," he says, "I became myself again. I was a thirteen-year-old male, not as tall as, though somewhat heavier than, a boy close to my own age, now doubled up in the dark below, not a dozen yards from where I was being beaten.
The beating changes him, makes him more aware; he observes the sailors "with as little pity as they observed the blacks." He feels pity for the slaves, realizing he is in the same position as they: all of them are on the ship against their will. He says, "I hated what I did [playing the fife]. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that, at least, it gave them time out of the hold. But what was the point of that or anything else?"
As the ship travels on, discipline degenerates; the ship is filthy, the men are filthy and are often drunk. Jessie separates himself from them, stepping away mentally, remembering every object in his home, dissociating himself from the horrible present. During this time, he becomes aware that the slave boy is watching him every time he is on deck. He points to himself with the fife, saying his name: "Jessie."
When a slave attacks the mate, Nicholas Spark, Spark guns him down and is immediately bound with a rope and thrown overboard: by killing the African man, he has destroyed the profit that would come from selling him, and Spark's own life is not worth that much. "Don't you see?" Purvis asks, "There went the profit!"
By this time, the slaves are all sick, and so are most of the crew. Stout is still trying to make friends with Jessie, who ignores him. To get revenge, Stout steals Jessie's fife and tosses it into the hold where Jessie must walk over the bodies of the slaves to look for it—or be flogged if he doesn't find it. The young slave boy finds it and hands it to Jessie, saving him from the horrendous task and the punishment.
They reach the coast of Cuba, and Captain Cawthorne begins bargaining with a Spaniard to sell the slaves. On the following day, they will be unloaded and sold.
Ben Stout's Mistake
The sailors arrange a party, bringing out rum and chests of clothes, dressing up the slaves like women, and getting drunk. Jessie is ordered to play his fife while the sailors dance and slap the slaves around. A sail appears, indicating a ship is approaching. Stout claims that he knows it, and it won't harm them. Cawthorne, who doesn't believe him and thinks the ship is a threat, orders all the slaves and the evidence of slavery to be thrown over the side, and the sailors begin tossing men, women, and children over the rail. Cawthorne, believing the ship is English, hoists the American flag, and, too late, realizes the ship is American.
The other ship approaches and a battle ensues, perceived only dimly by Jessie, who is in mortal terror. At the same time, a storm breaks over both vessels. Jessie grabs the young slave boy, and both of them crawl to the hold where they hide. While they are down there, a sailor up above closes the hatch, which is always closed in storms.
They remain trapped for several days during the storm. Finally, they hear a violent crash: the ship has run aground. The hatch cover falls away, and they crawl out, finding everyone dead except Captain Cawthorne, who is dying, the slaves gone, and the ship wrecked. Land is nearby, and they swim to it.
The Old Man
The two boys are taken in by an old man, an escaped slave who lives deep in the woods of Mississippi. He feeds them and helps them regain their strength, and he arranges for others to take the slave boy, whose name is Ras, north where he can be free. He tells Jessie how to walk the three-day journey back to New Orleans and asks him not to tell anyone because if Jessie tells anyone about the old man, he may be recaptured and taken back to slavery.
Home and After
Jessie walks home and finds his mother and sister, but he doesn't settle easily back into his old life. He has lost his old dreams of becoming rich since he does not want to do anything that is connected in any way with slavery. He has discovered that "everything I considered bore, somewhere along the way, the imprint of black hands." Eventually, he decides to become an apothecary—the 1840s equivalent of a pharmacist—and moves to Rhode Island where there are no slaves. He sends for his mother and sister and lives a quiet life. He misses the South, and for the rest of his life, he wonders what happened to Ras, but he never finds out. When the Civil War breaks out, he fights on the Northern side.
As the years pass, the horror of the voyage recedes in his consciousness, and he doesn't think about it every day. He marries and has a family. One thing, however, remains from the voyage: he cannot stand the sound of music because it reminds him of dancing the slaves:
For at the first note of a tune or a song, I would see once again as though they'd never ceased their dancing in my mind, black men and women and children lifting their tormented limbs in time to a reedy martial air, the dust rising from their joyless thumping, the sound of the fife finally drowned beneath the clanging of their chains.