Suppose the law: M. NourbeSe Philip’s The Zong!

Cover of M. NourbeSe Philip's 'Zong!' via the Dartmouth UP websiteThe Zong (Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug 232, 99 ER 629, [1783] EngR 85 (22 May 1783) (pdf)) is an infamous case. It concerned a claim against an insurer for the value of slaves thrown overboard from The Zong to allow the crew to survive a chronic lack of drinking water (it is voyage 84106 on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database). The claim succeeded at first instance, but failed on appeal before Lord Mansfield and Willis and Buller JJ. I have already blogged about Nate Oman’s review of Simon Schama’s Rough Crossings: Britain, Slaves, and the American Revolution (Harper Collins, 2007) which discussed the case, and about an episode of a television drama inspired by the case. Now Kate Sutherland brings news that poet (and recovering lawyer) M. NourbeSe Philip has published an extended poetry cycle about the case: Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng (Wesleyan University Press | The Mercury Press | Google Books (2008)). The abstract describes the book as “a haunting lifeline between archive and memory, law and poetry” and continues:

In November, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells the story that cannot be told yet must be told. Equal parts song, moan, shout, oath, ululation, curse, and chant, Zong! excavates the legal text. Memory, history, and law collide and metamorphose into the poetics of the fragment. Through the innovative use of fugal and counterpointed repetition, Zong! becomes an anti-narrative lament that stretches the boundaries of the poetic form, haunting the spaces of forgetting and mourning the forgotten.

Writing on Fascicle, Phillip described the form of her poetry cycle:

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,” 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.

The word- and clause- fragments on the page become mesmeric, and their repetition makes a visceral impact that the bare words of the court’s decision itself (shocking as they are) do not. Here’s one of the poems in the cycle:

Zong! #11

suppose the law









suppose the law not

– a crime

suppose the law a loss

suppose the law