In writing about slavery, the historian Davis Brian said that the story is not told well unless it makes the reader cry. Likewise, this song is not well explained unless in reading about it, tears pour from your eyes. The song is about the need to establish moral order in Haiti and to stop the trafficking of people across the Atlantic. This commerce brought about 900,000 people to Haiti from Ginen, the West Coast of Africa. During that three month journey, 15% of those who left Ginen didn’t survive the journey. Their bodies were dumped into the sea for the pursuing sharks who knew to lurk around the ships for a reliable human meal. While being devoured by oceanic beasts, our family’s blood would stain the ocean red. In Haiti this gruesome image is recalled, dubbing the Atlantic as the basin of our blood - basen san mwen.
In this ocean of blood lie the bones of 2 million of the 12 million Africans taken to the Americas. The magnitude of this atrocity makes the singer pause to recall that his family and friends are dead in this water. The victims are called children to capture the innocence of those who perished as well as to capture the singers inseparable ties to those who were captured, humiliated, raped, beaten, killed, without deserving any of it.
The human necessity for freedom fueled rebellions on the ship and when people did not overtly rebel it was only because of extreme oppressive measures. Hunger strikes were held to damage their well-fed appearance, on which ship captains depended come auction time. This tactic was countered by force feeding through a metallic oral speculum that pried the mouth open. On occasion the victims would take over the ship and sail back home to Ginen. When this was not possible, rather than submit to the barbaric will of their captors, some would take their own lives. This horror had to stop.
The singer says that he cannot be a mere witness to this horrific event. He cannot be indifferent. He must act, but he understands alone he is powerless against the economic interest and military powers supporting the trade. As is commonly said in Haiti, se fè ki koupe fè , meaning only metal cuts through metal. With this idea, the singer calls out for a weapon to empower him to stop this trade, “Ba n mwen ponya m atò pou m al ponyade yo.”
The call for a weapon is addressed to the Lwa Lenglensou, an old Dahomean Ancestor who lived much before the era of enslavement of Africans across the Atlantic. As an old Ancestor, he did not participate in the trade. His name means the innocent man. Lenglen is the Gedevi-Dahomean word for lamb and sou means male. The appeal is to a male person because prior to King Kadya Bosou enlarging his army with female recruits, African warriors were mostly men. The song is a calling for war against slavery and it appeals to male warriors to band together to stop it.
Lenglensou has another meaning. It also refers to the innocent lives lost in the basin of blood. In fact, those lives are the inspiration for the calling for war. The term Lenglensou basen san mwen makes the Atlantic synonymous with the sea of innocent blood. Too much water had poured from the singers eyes as he witnessed colonists and sharks enriching their ferocious appetites with the labor and the blood of African people. Only war could dry those tears. If ever there was a just war, it was the one fought in Haiti to end slavery. That war took an additional 150,000 lives to stop this nightmare.
Like all Haitian liberation songs set in the 17th and 18th century, this song is a Vodou song. At the time, Christian Churches championed the erroneous idea that if one were a slave, it was God’s will. And it was one’s duty to respect that will. This corrupt philosophy was used by all the Western Christian churches to support the enslavement of Africans. These Churches enriched themselves in that enterprise while helping to create poverty for the descendants of the victims. Up until 2006, only the Presbyterian Church and the Moravian Church had apologized for their support of the inhumane trade. It was only recently in 1963, in Vatican II, that the Catholic Church declared slavery to be immoral and a crime against humanity. Whenever one pauses to ponder that, water should run from one’s eyes.
This song about Lenglensou is from the treasure trove of Haiti’s oral tradition and it gives us a glimpse into the past. Lenglensou Basen San Mwen is a tearful reminder of the era of slavery, and of the spiritual value of the Atlantic ocean to people of African Ancestry in the Americas.