The Last Voyage of James Irving

By Kim Martins

You’ve got your work cut out, they say, the wind stealing their words as the ship’s surgeon steps on board. The sea is crystal sharp.

The captain says it’s a full cargo. Five hundred and ninety-two souls, very profitable. He has a salty laugh; a voice like lemons.

The surgeon listens for familiar sounds – swallowed shouts, weathered beams creaking, seagulls shrieking, sails billowing. He hears the honking note of a storm-petrel skimming the waves; checks the manifest and whispers each number as if saying a quiet prayer.

Dear Eleanor, he writes, warmed by the wine that will carry him through the months ahead. It shames me to admit that I will receive one shilling per soul. It is a high price indeed. But this will be my final voyage. I cannot go on. They have no more space than a man in a coffin.

He unfurls a map, traces the Virginia colony coastline, imagines a different life. It will be beautiful, he thinks — sun-baked fields, clouds of magnolias and dogwoods.

This morning we buried No. 47. I know not what she died of for she was not properly alive when she first came on board.

The sun flashes its teeth — so hot. He can’t stand the sour stench of unwashed bodies, the noise claws at his nerves.

A miasma rises from the lower decks, his quill scratches. It pours its noxious fevers and bloody fluxes over us all. My nights are filled with feverish dreams — I fear I will not see you again.

The slave ship drops anchor off Antigua. Another body is slipped into the sea under a blanket of burning stars.

On the morrow, the captain hopes he can find another ship’s surgeon among those huddled on the wharf wanting passage home.

Kim Martins lives in New Zealand and is a poet and short story writer.
Her work has been featured in The Copperfield Review, The Drabble, Plum 
Tree Tavern, Barren Magazine, Furtive Dalliance Literary Review, a “
fine line,” Flash Frontier, and is upcoming in Moonchild Magazine.
Her story is inspired by the real-life Scottish surgeon, James Irving (1759-1791). He was employed as a surgeon on the slave-ship, Prosperity, which shipped over 3,000 slaves to America.


4 thoughts on “The Last Voyage of James Irving”

  1. An inhumane passage conveyed with great power, intensity, and even with terrible beauty.

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