From a sequence of poems that excavate the missing history of Samboo – renamed Bilal – an African who died within days of his arrival in eighteenth-century Lancaster, and is presumed buried at Sunderland Point.
On Sunderland Point of the Lune Estuary
Samboo of River Lune estuary
cut off and submerged
under waning facts,
buried in Lancaster’s memory
the myth of Sunderland Point
muddied with trade and profits
relentless waves of merchandise;
its shipping tides cut off and flood
far and near lives.
Locals say he came
off a ship, a faithful slave
to a captain gone to town.
Abandoned by this master
Samboo, stupefied, dies
and christian sailors with goodness
bury this poor heathen soul
on the shore where Sunderland
points to the highways of the open seas,
to ships returning from triangular trading.
Samboo’s Elegy: no Rhyme or Reason
If I don’t sing you
who are you?
Does not the word make the man?
Maryse Conde, Segu
Lying at the site of Samboo’s grave,
waiting for full earth to speak to me,
waiting for buried bones to whisper
as a flow of fears floods through me.
I’m held here at Lune River’s estuary,
caught in fear, not daring to go down
again into the ship’s deep belly –
the slaving schooner, moored off the coast,
its cargo-hold gasping with bodies
unable to stretch out. Heaving, I
breathe out; each heady in-breath a dream-
catcher, shipping me into the craft’s
dark stench, weighted with irons, smelling
of vomit, sickly death of shit-piss
fear. The surging, billowing, rolling
never stops, and I bang! Holler! Cry out!
Moaning in my body Let me out!
Let me go! Sweating, as I reach up
in the black recess, I search for God.
Grip tight to that faith, like a light-shaft,
a slippery life-raft. Merciful
Aaa-llah, hold me! Merciful Aaa-llah
avenge me! Invoking old forces,
pagan ways, my ancestors, my expiring
neighbour! Anyone! Anything sacred –
Please spare me from this. Trial of
hopelessness, faithlessness, for months
no sight of land, only the world of
self-contained lashing brine, the ship on
foaming sea; men become beasts, bloodied
brutally beaten, raped, spewed on deck.
Lying at the sight of Samboo’s grave,
waiting for full earth to speak to me,
waiting for buried bones to whisper,
as a flow of tears floods through me,
poet, reluctant to reconnect, I
reach out, switch on my bedside light,
waking with terrors that will not leave me.
99 Names of the Samboo
Lancaster Keys: the Brew Room
Sunderland points to West Indies plantations.
A Samboo, like Gillows’ crafted mahogany,
is farmed and forested, torn from root
systems to harden or die,
to be shaped into something new
and of use to Lancaster Town.
Sunderland points to a new home
for a Fulani, Bilal, called Boy (no matter
his age) by his owners,
their primrose path paved with mahogany
bodies. Fallen nature. Hardness
of heart, shameless water courses.
The ship’s crew gave their cabin boy
a name: Samboo. Like he didn’t have
his own old father’s family line,
names respecting Allah, the
One, Allah the beneficent, the
merciful, names that speak of a
way paved with his ancestors, each
name an elegy, a praise song.
A Samboo – a converted life,
fed just enough to confiscate its labour,
and disposable as an animal past its use;
Lancaster keeping the harvest, fermenting
a homesick bitter brew – a Samboo
kicked from his calabash pot.
A desolate breed lashed from
the shaft of his life-source,
trapped by distance and isolation,
their Samboo pines for his master, mythical
imagined key and centrepiece of his world.
I see this Samboo, this boy Bilal
in the Brewery room – outpost
of a West Indian estate – away from the boiling
reek of molasses for rum,
pining for the familiar, where rooms are many,
in one dwelling, in one
compound, in one village, in one
land, in one kingdom, in one
empire, in one continent.
A fermenting homesick brew, he drains out,
kicked from his split calabash pot.
These poems originally appeared in
Ship Shape by Dorothea Smartt,
published by Peepal Tree Press, Leeds