In 1781 the slave ship, Zong, captained by one Luke Collingwood set sail from the coast of West Africa for Jamaica. As is the custom its “cargo” was fully insured. Instead of the customary six to nine weeks, this fateful trip will take some four months on account of navigational errors on the part of the captain, resulting in some of the Zong’s “cargo” being lost and the remainder being destroyed by order of the captain.
The Zong’s cargo comprised 470 slaves.
“Sixty negroes died for want of water…and forty others…through thirst and frenzy…threw themselves into the sea and were drowned; and the master and mariners…were obliged to throw overboard 150 other negroes.”1 Captain Collingwood believed that if the African slaves died a natural death, the owners of the ship would have to bear the cost, but if they were “thrown alive into the sea, it would be the loss of the underwriters.”2 In other words, murdering the African slaves would prove more financially advantageous to the owners of the ship and its cargo.
The owners, the Messrs Gregson, being fully insured, make an unsuccessful claim against the insurers for the destroyed cargo. The ship’s owners are successful in their legal action against their insurers to recover their loss. The insurers appeal this judgment and a new trial ordered: Gregson v. Gilbert is the formal name of this reported decision which is more colloquially known as the Zong case.
The text of the legal decision of the Zong case, Gregson v. Gilbert, runs to some five hundred words. Relying entirely on the words of the reported text, but through a variety of techniques such as whiting and/or blacking out words, fragmentation and reversals, I use this word store to create the manuscript, Zong! Fragmenting and mutilating the text mirror the fragmentation and mutilation that slavery perpetrated on Africans and African customs and life. In deliberately changing the story of the legal text, I engage in a similar duplicity that the actors in the Zong case engaged in to convince themselves that it was perfectly allowable to murder Africans in order to collect insurance monies. Further, in dropping below the objective legal text as given, to search out the emotions: “negroes want sustenance…negroes want water,”3 I subvert the rationality–the murderous rationality, if you will–on which the law is based.
In its potent ability to decree what is is not, as in a person being no longer human but thing, the law approaches the realm of magic and religion. The conversion of human into chattel can be considered an act the equal of transubstantiation which converts the eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
As poet/writer/creator I become censor and magician, simultaneously censoring the activity of the reported text, and conjuring something new from the absence of the Africans as humans that is at the heart of the text. In deciding what aspects of the text will be removed, or allowed to remain, and in translating the residue into poetry, I can be said to be replicating the censorial activity of the law which decides what facts should or shouldn’t become evidence, what is allowed into the record and what is excluded.
What, in fact, did happen on board the Zong? Can we, some two hundred years later, ever really know? Should we? These are the questions that I and, therefore, the reader/audience confront. The reader/audience only becomes aware of the complete text/story at the end of the book. Except that they do not, since the complete story does not exist. All that remains is the legal text of those who were integrally connected to, and involved in, a system that permitted the drowning of these Africans who will always remain nameless. As poet, I attempt a balancing act between the apparent irrationality of the event, at least from the perspective of the Africans on board the Zong, and the fundamental human impulse to make meaning. The abbreviated, disjunctive, almost non-sensical presentation of the “poems” demands of the reader/audience an effort to “make sense” of an event that can never be understood. What is it about? What is happening? This, I suggest, is the closest we will ever get, some two hundred years later, to what it must have been like for those Africans on board the Zong. Further, in attempting to “make sense” of these events, the reader/audience shares the risk of the poet who herself risks contamination by using the prescribed language of the law.
Excerpts from Zong! can be found here
M. NourbeSe Philip reading at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa (audio file)
Zong! and other books by Philips
Review of Philips’ “Geneology of Resistance” by George Elliot Clarke