The Poetry Society Annual Lecture Series for Livingstone, on the other hand, which began as the last poem in She Tries Her Tongue, would, through the trope of the colonial explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, confront Silence and the idea of silencing, both of which are integral aspects of colonial systems whose legacies haunt the world and are deeply implicated and imbricated in the plight of a world hurtling towards climate catastrophe. The ideas in both these works laid the groundwork for Zong! that would come several years later.
My interest in the Zong massacre begins in a work, Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire (1994), by the British historian James Walvin. He describes the massacre of some 150 enslaved Africans, the “cargo”, of a slave ship, Zong. While it was being repainted on the coast of West Africa, the ship, originally named Zorg (the Dutch word meaning care), would become Zong, the name some of us are now familiar with. Zong’s journey into infamy and history begins in Sao Tome, an island off the coast of Ghana. The ship’s intended destination is Jamaica, but navigational errors would substantially extend the four- to six-week journey and some of the crew and enslaved Africans become ill and die. Believing that there would not be suffi cient water for the remainder of the journey, the captain decides that he would murder by drowning some 150 of the 470 enslaved Africans on board, so as to allow for the ship’s owners to collect insurance monies. Beginning on November 29, 1781, the ensuing massacre is carried out over the following ten days. On the ship’s return to Liverpool and in the wake of the insurers rejecting their claim, the Zong’s owners sue the former for destruction of property – the very Africans who were murdered – resulting in the lawsuit Gregson vs. Gilbert. At the first hearing the court rules in favor of the ship’s owners, ordering the insurers to pay them for the Africans who were murdered. In response the insurers appeal the judgment successfully and are granted a new trial. There is, however, no record of a new trial ever being held. Lord Mansfield, Chief Justice of the court, refers to the case as “a most uncommon” one. Gregson vs. Gilbert, the report of the decision granting a new trial, remains the only extant document related to this tragic event.
The poem, Zong! as told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, uses only the 500-plus words of the court report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, and explodes the archive to release the voices on board the Zong. As I write
54 The Poetry Review