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  • Unhousing the Archives Around the Zong, AgainWinsome Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights and Lawrence Scott’s Dangerous Freedom
  • Bénédicte Ledent (bio)

The massacre on the Zong in 1781, during which slavers threw 132 captive Africans overboard, and the historical ramifications of such a horrendous event have exerted a genuine fascination on the authors of the anglophone Caribbean diaspora for quite a while. The best-known example of such a literary phenomenon might be Zong!, a long poem based on one of the very few official archival records of this tragedy, namely, the report of the court case that took place in 1783 around the notorious slave ship and her owners’ insurance claims for their jettisoned “cargo.” Written by Canadian-Tobagonian Marlene m. nourbeSe philip and published in 2008, this formally daring poetic work has been performed multiple times in different venues. It has gained notoriety as a text that, in the words of its author, “move[s] beyond representation of what the New World experience was” (philip 2008, 197) while mirroring, through its [End Page 141] impressively creative dismembering of the legal document, “the fragmentation and mutilation that slavery perpetrated on Africans” (195).

For all her formal and conceptual innovativeness, m. nourbeSe philip was not the first nor the only West Indian artist to zoom in on this historical episode that shockingly encapsulates the extreme dehumanization inherent in the transatlantic slave trade. In the preceding decades, at least three writers of Caribbean descent had already addressed the Zong tragedy, sometimes in relation to its alleged representation by J. M. W. Turner in his 1840 painting The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhon Coming On). One of them is Jamaican Michelle Cliff, who includes a brief reference to the Zong massacre at the end of her first fiction, Abeng (1984), and devotes one chapter of her 1993 novel Free Enterprise to the contrasting effect that the troubling canvas by the famous English painter can have on Black and white people in nineteenth-century America. In a letter to the white American owner of The Slave Ship, Cliff’s Black protagonist makes this striking declaration: “While you focus on the background of the Turner painting, I cannot tear my eyes from the foreground” (80). Guyanese David Dabydeen, too, engages with the infamous slave ship in different ways. His 1999 novel A Harlot’s Progress, mostly set in eighteenth-century London, contains numerous allusions to the Zong affair and gives an idea of how it fits in with the mercantile society of the time. But it is probably Dabydeen’s long poem “Turner” (1994, 1–40) that best conveys his almost obsessive preoccupation with the story of the Zong and its representation in The Slave Ship. As he writes in the preface to the collection in which “Turner” is included, his narrative “focuses on the submerged head of the African in the foreground of Turner’s painting. It has been drowned in Turner’s (and other artists’) sea for centuries” (1994, ix). Finally, Anglo-Guyanese Fred D’Aguiar, in his novel Feeding the Ghosts (1997), provides a lyrical fictionalization of the events around the Zong, including the legal proceedings that came in their wake, without, however, directly mentioning the painting alleged to have represented it. Obviously, the aim of these four Caribbean authors was, in spite of their different generic and stylistic choices, to denounce the general amnesia around the slave trade and slavery. To different degrees, they also meant to give a voice to the victims of this abominable, yet iconic, episode of [End Page 142] British colonial history and thereby compensate for the abstract character of the sparse legal or visual archives that have come to us (Baucom 2005, 275).1

The haunting quality of the events that took place on and around the Zong undoubtedly explains the pervasive and recurring presence of this slave ship in the field of anglophone Caribbean letters—not only on the creative level but on the critical one as well. This ubiquity testifies to an understandably compulsive need to rehearse such traumatic memories, or to borrow m. nourbeSe philip’s words, “to go over the same material...

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