M. NourbeSe Philip's epic poem Zong! gives voice to slave ship victims

In November 1781, a massacre began on the Zong slave ship. The tragedy inspired the Canadian poem Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip. She reflects on the mass murder, the bizarre court case, and the work of art still rising from its depths.

Every November, the poem Zong! becomes ‘a social sacrament’ to honour 133 slaves killed

The book-length poem Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is one of the most widely-studied literary works produced in Canada. The poet is seen here at a reading at the Arika Festival in 2013 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Alex Woodward/Wesleyan University Press)

*Originally published on November 29, 2021.

In November 1781, a mass murder began aboard the slave ship 'Zong', some 500 kilometres out in the Caribbean Sea west of Jamaica.

"The events on the Zong are so bizarre and traumatic, even now, when I read about it, I still am shocked by it," said M. NourbeSe Philip. The Tobagan-born Canadian poet is the author of Zong!, a book-length poem honouring the victims of the massacre.

Each year, on or around November 29th, readers of Zong! gather to perform a 'durational reading' of the text. These readings usually last about eight hours, and end around 3 a.m. In 2020 readers met online over the course of 10 days, joining from their homes in Asia, Africa, Europe, South and North America.

"It's a book that was meant, I think, to be a sacrament, a social sacrament, a ceremony," said Fred Moten, a U.S. poet and cultural theorist.

"Maybe the closest thing that we would have to it within the normative constraints of culture as we know it would be a musical score."

Court report inspires 'break and entry' of text

Since its publication in 2007, Philip's poem has become one of the most studied and written-about works of contemporary Canadian literature. The work uses the text of a British legal case report relating to the Zong case, ripping apart and reconfiguring the language in a way that remembers those who died.

Beginning on November 29, 1781, the Zong's crew threw 133 Africans overboard to drown, beginning with the "less valuable" women and children. Supposedly, what motivated the crew was a shortage of drinking water aboard ship. The killings continued for 10 days.

While the scale of this atrocity could make it stand out among myriad other evils connected with the Atlantic slave trade, what makes the Zong case especially notorious today is the reaction of the ship's owners and the British justice system.

"The owners of the ship, the Gregsons, made a claim against the insurance because at that time, as we do today, we insure property and the enslaved were seen as property, no different from horses or cattle," explained Philip.

England's most important legal mind at the time, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (aka William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield), presided over a court proceeding in 1783 to settle the question of whether the insurers were obliged to pay a sum of approximately £3,600 to compensate the Gregsons for the financial loss they had suffered due to the "necessity" of throwing so many people into the ocean.

British barrister, politician and judge William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield was known for his reform of English law. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"[Mansfield] said, 'As much as it shocks one, it is the same as horses being thrown overboard'," historian James Walvin told CBC Radio's IDEAS.

Mansfield's own personal struggles over the Zong judgement contribute to the plot of Amma Asante's 2013 movie, Belle, which offers him some credit for preventing the Gregsons from receiving any money. He ordered a retrial after discovering they omitted and possibly distorted certain details in their account of the Zong's journey.

Meanwhile, M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! offers a remembrance of the Africans who were killed, and a response to the British legal system and even the language and logic out of which it was built. To do so, she used the text of the original case report describing Mansfield's decision.

"The two page document contains some 500-plus different words. I decided that I would lock myself in that text and only use the words that appear in that case report," Philip explained.

M. NourbeSe Philip provides what the legal document will not, cannot. She gives us names and breath and thought and care.- Christina Sharpe, professor of humanities

The resulting poem shows the words, syllables, and letters of the case report cast across pages. One fragment of a word may be separated from the whole amid a sea of what typographers and book designers call 'white space.'

"I think that Zong! is an enormous work," said Christina Sharpe, professor of humanities at York University. "Philip provides what the legal document will not, cannot. She gives us names and breath and thought and care." 

"I felt what I was doing was carrying out a 'break and entry' on the text," said Philip. "How was I going to break and enter that document? It's as if the process was that by immersing the text in the water that actually drowned them, this dry, desiccated two-page legal report sort of regained life, and the voices now continue to speak to us."

A significant body of work

Books of poetry, especially those with complex or 'experimental' techniques of composition, rarely become commercial best-sellers—and Zong! has never been one either.

But its increasing uptake by students, scholars, and devoted readers has made the book a phenomenon of a different sort.

Recognition of Philip's own significance as a poet has also surged in recent years, in part due to a growing interest in Zong! over the 15 years since its publication. Philip received the 2020 PEN/Nabokov Award for International Literature, which recognizes a writer's entire body of work.

"I think Zong! is a truly important work that people will be reading and teaching and thinking with, and revisiting, for years to come," said Sharpe.

Guests in this episode:

M. NourbeSe Philip is the author of Zong!  as well as the essay collection, Bla_k and many other works.

Dave Gosse is director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. 

Fred Moten is professor in the department of performance studies at New York University and Distinguished Professor Emeritus at University of California, Riverside. His books include The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study (co-authored with Stefano Harney) and the poetry collection, The Feel Trio.

Christina Sharpe is the author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. She is professor of humanities at York University, and Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities.

James Walvin is professor emeritus of history at the University of York (U.K.), and the author of The Zong: A Massacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery  and Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire.

Thanks to all the Zong! readers and performers heard in the episode, including Otoniye Juliane Okot Bitek, Diane Roberts, Richard Douglass Chin, Edna Carolina Gonzalez Barona, Ola Mohammad, Curtis Santiago, Adom Philogene Heron, Natalie Wood, Kuda Mutamba, Sistah Lois, Amai Kuda, Ruben Esguerra, Michael Lynn, Kobena Aquaa Harrison, and Y Josephine. Thanks also to Michael Nield for the voicing the words of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and the case report on Gregson vs. Gilbert.

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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