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Zong!’s “Should we?”: Questioning the Ethical Representation of Trauma
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The 2008 publication ofZong! marks M. NourbeSe Philip’s first collection of poetry since the groundbreaking and award-winning She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks in 1988.1 In taking as its subject the 1781 massacre of slaves from the slave ship Zong, Philip’s text participates in a recent upsurge of interest in the massacre. Ian Baucom’s 2005 Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History, in its discussion of the rise of speculative finance, provides a detailed account of the Zong massacre and the court cases resulting from it. Furthermore, in 2006, City University (United Kingdom) hosted a small conference to discuss new archival material discovered by Martin Dockray. Work from this conference resulted in a 2007 issue of The Journal of Legal History which offered not only a broadened view of maritime insurance laws pertaining to slavery but also an expanded view of the massacre based on Dockray’s discovery of written testimony by James Kelsall, the ship’s first mate.2 Beyond this collection of articles suggesting the exciting possibility of future scholarly archival work, one might even note a growing public interest in and awareness of the Zong massacre. The year 2007’s bicente-nary commemoration of the end of the British slave trade, for example, featured a replica of the Zong sailing down the Thames to the Tower of London (Rupprecht 266).

As the various written representations of the Zong massacre elaborate, this event is notable not just for its dehumanization of slaves on board the ship but also for the court system’s perpetuation of the injustice. The Zong set sail from its last port of call, Sao Tomé off the West Coast of Africa, for Jamaica on 6 September 1781, holding approximately 440 slaves.3 Captained by Luke Collingwood, a first-time captain and former ship’s surgeon, the ship’s intended voyage to Jamaica was an arduous one where sickness ravaged both those enslaved and the crew. On 27 November, Jamaica was at last sighted, but Collingwood being an inexperienced captain (and potentially incompetent due to illness), mistook it for Hispaniola and turned to sail further west. Just two days later, claiming to be running short of water, Collingwood decided a jettison of cargo would be required to save the majority of the ship’s passengers. The cargo? Live slaves. Approximately 132 in total, but the number of those thrown overboard is notably “slippery” (Philip, “Notanda” 208).4 With reportedly some, but obviously not enough, objection by the crew, this mass murder took place over three days.

Not surprisingly, the perpetrators of this murder were never charged, although Granville Sharpe, noted British abolitionist, did try to motivate such a case, having been asked for help by Olaudah Equiano (Shyllon 187–89). Nevertheless, in 1783, this event was addressed in the courts when Gregson and Company, the owners of the Zong, sued the insurance company, Thomas Gilbert, for the insured valued of the jettisoned “cargo,” a value of £30 per lost slave. Under insurance law, the only pertinent fact was whether or not the jettison was deemed “necessary”; natural deaths due to illness would not be covered by insurance, but a necessary jettison of cargo, even if that cargo were living beings, would require compensation. Initially, on 5 March 1783, a jury did rule in favour of the ship owners, ordering Gilbert to honour the insurance claim. Regardless, Gilbert still refused to pay, arguing, of course, that one cannot bring about a loss purposely and expect to recover for that loss. The case returned to the courts in May, and on 22 May 1783, at the conclusion of a two-day hearing, Chief Justice Lord Mansfield, along with Justice Willes and Buller, ruled in favour of a new trial, citing a current insufficiency of proof that the jettison was necessary. Whether or not that new trial ever occurred and whether or not any compensation was ever paid to Gregson and his partners remains to this day unknown. One explanation assumes that because the second trial likely offered “no point of law” and was instead “decided on the facts” (Mackenzie-Grieve quoted in Shyllon...

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