The 5000 Flames of John Shaw’s Hell: Retelling History Through Song
Telling stories and preserving history through song is a tradition that exists all over the world. I’ve long been drawn to the old ballads of America and Europe—particularly songs of the sea. If I had been a sea-faring man like my ancestors, I like to think I’d have been a chantey-man. I recently wrote a couple historical sea ballads for the record I just released with my band, the Waxwings. Usually I would much rather someone listen to a song of mine than listen to me talk about it, but in this case it’s a toss up: please do listen, but read on if you’d like to know more about where the songs came from.
PART II: The 5000 Flames of John Shaw’s Hell
Rainy throughout – Put Nos. 74, 126, 335, 151 in irons They also being connected with those who were put in irons yesterday – at two PM after having asked them to tell where they put the poison and to confess the plot, which they refused to do gave them 3 dozen lashes on the back and kept them confined. Keeping them on rice and water.
At 8 Am No 104 died Committed his body to the deep. At 12 M. No 165 died from the use of opium &. Buried him at three PM. Cannot understand what is the matter with the Coolies that they die so.
These are entries from a log kept aboard the ship Forest Eagle in 1861 en route from Macau to Havana. The numbers refer to the human cargo of “coolies.” The log was kept by Coolie Master John O. Shaw, who stood to earn $5 for every coolie delivered alive (a sum that declined significantly throughout the 4 month journey). Outlawed in the British Empire in 1834, the slave trade gave way to the coolie trade—the exploitation of laborers from Asia—which proved only marginally better.
When I read through Shaw’s log, I immediately felt that I had to write a song to retell this story from a different perspective. Here was an account of a truly horrific journey full of sickness, death, suicide, conspiracies, attempted mutinies, drug addiction, lashings, prisoners in irons, in which at least a hundred men died at sea far, far from home. But it was told in the terse, impersonal language of a business transaction—a mere list of events as casual as a checkbook register. Shaw’s wondering comment on 4/9 is the only such editorial comment in the log.
I wrote “The 5000 Flames of John Shaw’s Hell”based on the events described by Shaw and told them from the imagined point of view of one of the coolies (No. 139), seeking to humanize the numbered cargo with character and back-story. So it’s a true story but it’s also fictionalized, which brings up the sometimes strange relationship between accuracy and truth. To me, this retelling hits closer to the qualitative truth of the events than the quantitative list found in the log.
The Waxwings are a band from Portland, Oregon, and this song appears on our recently released debut CD “Age and Wonder.” The album is full of stories—true ones, made-up ones and metaphorical ones—plus other kinds of songs too. And only a couple of them are about the sea. But I like to think they’re all true in one way or another.