On the anniversary of the Zong massacre, Mr. NourbeSe Philip’s epic poem comes back to life


Exactly 240 years ago that day, a mass murder began aboard the slave ship “Zong”, some 500 kilometers 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’m still shocked,” Mr. NourbeSe Philip said. The Canadian poet born in Tobagan is the author of Zong!, a book-length poem honoring the victims of the massacre.

Each year, on or around November 29, readers of Zong! come together to perform a “duration reading” of the text. These readings usually last about eight hours and end around 3 a.m. In 2020, readers met online for 10 days, meeting from their homes in Asia, Africa, Europe, South and North America.

  • The 10-day reading series of Zong! from 2020 will be rebroadcast from November 30, 2021 here.
  • Join the 24 hour ‘interactive livestream’ with the poet and readers of Zong! December 10, 2021, here.

“It’s a book that was meant, I think, to be a sacrament, a social sacrament, a ceremony,” said Fred Moten, an American poet and cultural theorist.

“Perhaps the closest thing we would have to it within the normative constraints of culture as we know it would be a musical score.”

Court report inspires ‘break-in’ of text

Since its publication in 2007, Philip’s poem has become one of the most studied and written works in contemporary Canadian literature. The book uses text from a UK legal case report relating to the Zong case, tearing apart and reconfiguring the language in a way that is reminiscent of those who have died.

From November 29, 1781, the crew of the Zong threw 133 Africans overboard to drown them, starting with the “less precious” women and children. Supposedly, what motivated the crew was a shortage of potable water on board the ship. The killings continued for 10 days.

While the scale of this atrocity could distinguish it from a myriad of other ills linked to the Atlantic slave trade, what makes the Zong case particularly notorious today is the reaction of the shipowners and the judicial system. British.

“The shipowners, the Gregsons, made a claim against the insurance because at that time, as we do today, we insure property and slaves were considered property, not unlike 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 legal proceedings in 1783 to settle the question of whether insurers were obligated to pay a sum of around £ 3,600 to compensate the Gregsons for the financial loss they had suffered as a result of the “need” to throw so many people into the ocean.

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

“[Mansfield] said, “As shocking as it is, it is as much the same as horses thrown overboard,” “historian James Walvin told CBC radio. IDEAS.

Mansfield’s personal struggles over the Zong judgment contribute to the plot of Amma Asante’s 2013 film, Beautiful, who gives him some credit for preventing the Gregsons from receiving money. He ordered a new trial after discovering that they had omitted and possibly misrepresented certain details in their account of the Zong’s journey.

Meanwhile, Mr. 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 this, she used the text of the original case report describing Mansfield’s decision.

“The two-page document contains over 500 different words. I decided to lock myself in that text and only use the words that appear in this case report,” Philip explained.

Mr. NourbeSe Philip provides what the legal document does not want, cannot. She gives us names, breath, thoughts and care.– Christina Sharpe, professor of literature

The resulting poem shows the words, syllables, and letters of the case report spread across the pages. A fragment of a word can be separated at all in the middle of a sea of ​​what typographers and book designers call “white space”.

“I think that Zong! is a huge job, ”said Christina Sharpe, professor of humanities at York University. “Philip provides what the legal document doesn’t want, can’t. She gives us names, breath, thoughts and care. ”

“I felt what I was doing was doing a ‘break and enter’ on the text,” Philip said. “How was I going to break into this document?” It’s as if the process was that by dipping the text into the water that actually drowned them, that dry, parched two-page legal report somehow came to life, and the voices now continue to speak to us. “

Important work

Books of poetry, especially those that use complex or “experimental” composition techniques, seldom become commercial bestsellers — and Zong! has never been one either.

But its growing adoption by students, academics, and devoted readers has made the book a phenomenon of a different genre.

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

“I think Zong! is really important work that people will read, teach, reflect and revisit for years to come, ”said Sharpe.

Guests in this episode:

Mr. NourbeSe Philippe is the author of Zong! as well as the collection of tests, Bla_k and many other works.

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

Fred moten is a Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Riverside. His books include The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (co-written with Stefano Harney) and the collection of poetry, The trio of sensations.

Christina sharpe is the author of In the wake: on darkness and being. She is a professor of humanities at York University and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities.

James walvin is professor emeritus of history at the University of York (UK) and author of Le Zong: a massacre, the law and the end of slavery and Black ivory: slavery in the British Empire.

Thanks to all 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 Joséphine. Thanks also to Michael Nield for voicing the words of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield and the Gregson vs. Gilbert case report.

* This episode was produced by Tom Howell.

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