The Man with the Branded Hand
I was reading Heather McHugh's essay Lines of the Hand, which is currently posted on the Poetry Foundation website, and was reminded of a bit of local literary history.
Jonathan Walker was born in 1799 on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Walker was a Quaker sea captain who became a national hero in 1844 when he was tried and sentenced as a "slave-stealer" because of his efforts to help seven runaway slaves escape from Florida to the Bahamas. Walker's trial was held in Federal Court in Pensacola. He was convicted, fined, pilloried, and branded on the palm of his right hand with a hot iron with the letters "S. S.," for "slave-stealer." Walker was imprisoned for eleven months, and was released only after his fine was paid by Northern abolitionists.
After his release, Walker lectured widely on the abolition of slavery. About 1850, he moved to what is now Norton Shores, Michigan (just several miles north of where I live), where he bought a fruit farm and lived until his death on May 1, 1878. Walker was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier's popular poem The Branded Hand, published by Whittier in 1846. A monument was erected in Walker's memory in Muskegon's Evergreen Cemetery on August 1, 1878. The monument is engraved with a quote from Whittier's poem and includes a carved stone image of Captain Walker's branded hand.
In 1999, the grave was marked as a Michigan State Historic Site.
THE BRANDED HAND
by John Greenleaf Whittier
Welcome home again, brave seaman! with thy thoughtful brow and gray,
And the old heroic spirit of our earlier, better day;
With that front of calm endurance, on whose steady nerve in vain
Pressed the iron of the prison, smote the fiery shafts of pain.
Is the tyrant's brand upon thee? Did the brutal cravens aim
To make God's truth thy falsehood, His holiest work thy shame?
When, all blood-quenched, from the torture the iron was withdrawn,
How laughed their evil angel the baffled fools to scorn!
They change to wrong the duty which God hath written out
On the great heart of humanity, too legible for doubt!
They, the loathsome moral lepers, blotched from footsole up to crown,
Give to shame what God hath given unto honor and renown!
Why, that brand is highest honor! than its traces never yet
Upon old armorial hatchments was a prouder blazon set;
And thy unborn generations, as they tread our rocky strand,
Shall tell with pride the story of their father's branded hand!
As the Templar home was welcome, bearing back-from Syrian wars
The scars of Arab lances and of Paynim scimitars,
The pallor of the prison, and the shackle's crimson span,
So we meet thee, so we greet thee, truest friend of God and man.
He suffered for the ransom of the dear Redeemer's grave,
Thou for His living presence in the bound and bleeding slave;
He for a soil no longer by the feet of angels trod,
Thou for the true Shechinah, the present home of God.
For, while the jurist, sitting with the slave-whip o'er him swung,
From the tortured truths of freedom the lie of slavery wrung,
And the solemn priest to Moloch, on each God-deserted shrine,
Broke the bondman's heart for bread, poured the bondman's blood for wine;
While the multitude in blindness to a far-off Saviour knelt,
And spurned, the while, the temple where a present Saviour dwelt;
Thou beheld'st Him in the task-field, in the prison shadows dim,
And thy mercy to the bondman, it was mercy unto Him!
In thy lone and long night-watches, sky above and wave below,
Thou didst learn a higher wisdom than the babbling schoolmen know;
God's stars and silence taught thee, as His angels only can,
That the one sole sacred thing beneath the cope of heaven is Man!
That he who treads profanely on the scrolls of law and creed,
In the depth of God's great goodness may find mercy in his need;
But woe to him who crushes the soul with chain and rod,
And herds with lower natures the awful form of God!
Then lift that manly right-hand, bold ploughman of the wave!
Its branded palm shall prophesy, "Salvation to the Slave!"
Hold up its fire-wrought language, that whoso reads may feel
His heart swell strong within him, his sinews change to steel.
Hold it up before our sunshine, up against our Northern air;
Ho! men of Massachusetts, for the love of God, look there!
Take it henceforth for your standard, like the Bruce's heart of yore,
In the dark strife closing round ye, let that hand be seen before!
And the masters of the slave-land shall tremble at that sign,
When it points its finger Southward along the Puritan line
Can the craft of State avail them? Can a Christless church withstand,
In the van of Freedom's onset, the coming of that band?