The Slave Trade Was Overboard — Literally.

Poetry is defined as a type of literature or artistic writing that attempts to stir a reader’s imagination/emotions. It can help us understand issues that occur not only in the present but in the past as well. In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! the author composes a found poetry book with a complex writing structure throughout. In the acknowledgments, the author discusses how the book is inspired by “Black Ivory” written by James Walvin. Walvin is known for writing about slavery in the British Empire. With this, readers can expect the book to be connected to slavery in multiple ways. We can get a little taste of the theme that will be prevalent throughout the book.

It’s clear when we read to the first section of the book how the writing is a little difficult to follow/understand. For me, I had to read the poems out loud in order to try to get a grasp on what was being written in order to comprehend it. In fact, this happened to be the first time I across a poem that allows the readers to read the poem in multiple ways as a result of the way it’s structured. In other words, there is no clear way to read the poems, would you agree?

On another note, the first poem has an emphasis on the idea of water as you can see on pages 3 and 4:

The water being a main element in the first poem made me think about why the author would decide to start off the book this way. I started to question the importance of the water, and how it had anything to do with race. Water can symbolize a series of things such as life, birth, a right of passage, or refreshment. After doing some research on slaves and water, I found some of the history behind it.

Zong was the name of a ship that was headed toward Jamaica in 1781. The trip was approximately 12 weeks long and on the ship, there were 417 slaves. Toward the end of the voyage, there was a shortage of water and an outbreak of disease. With no clean water or food, it was going to be very difficult for the slaves to fight off the sickness. As a result, the ship’s captain claimed that the slaves were going to die anyway, so in order to save money and himself, he threw slaves who seemed very sick off the ship. He knew that all of the voyages were insured, but didn’t insure sick slaves or those killed by illness. It did however, ensure slaves that died through drowning. 54 Africans were chained together and thrown overboard while another 78 were drowned over the next two days. By the time the ship had reached the Caribbean, 132 people were murdered. When the ship returned to England the owners claimed they should get their money back for all the slaves lost. The case was taken to court and the jury decided since it was allowed to kill animals for the safety of the ship, it was ok to kill slaves for the same reason. Eventually, this became known as the Zong Massacre. It’s clear the poem is alluding to this historical moment as Philip writes, “The some of negroes … over… board” (6) and “Justified a throwing of property (16), which is a clear indication of the slaves being thrown off the ship. Below you can find an image of this moment.

Finally while reading the poems, I noticed the phrase “negroe” is often repeated. This phrase has a clear connection to the Zong massacre as this was a word African American slaves were called. This language shows the theme of racism and how there was racial prejudice during the 1700s. In addition, it shows how those of color lives were not valued or cared much about. It’s sad to say in today’s society the Zong massacre still exists in its own ways. For example, police brutality against those of a Black/Latino race is still prevalent, and those of color face unfair punishments every day.

With that, I leave a few questions for you guys to think about:

  1. How was your experience reading the book? Did some of the complex structures confuse you while reading?
  2. How does this Zong massacre image make you feel? What comes to mind when you see this image?
  3. Have you ever witness a discriminatory act? If so, how did it make you feel? Did you do anything about it?

11 thoughts on “The Slave Trade Was Overboard — Literally.”

  1. Hey Maddy!! You did a great job on your analysis of Zong! and I really like that you included images of the Zong Massacre so we would have something to refer to. Speaking of the massacre imagine it made me feel disturbed and not at peace when looking at it. For example, M. NourbeSe Philip tells the story in Zong #3 basically about people being thrown overboard in the massacre. (“the some of negroes… over… board… the rest in lives… drowned… exist did not… in themselves… preservation… obliged… frenzy… thirst for forty others… etc.”). http://sites.duke.edu/blackatlantic/files/2014/02/Zong-3-290×300.png
    Weirdly enough, the image made me think of the Nazi’s and the Jews because they were throwing these people overboard based on their ethnicity and the Nazi’s were discriminating against the Jews because of their religion. In my opinion, they are similar, but obviously not the same.

  2. The experience of reading the book is definitely unusual. It was difficult to read at first but after reading the “Rotanda” section, it was a little more clear of her purposes of writing the book this way. She says “When I started spacing out the words, there is something happening in the eye tracking the words across the page, working to pull the page and larger ‘meanings’ together- the eye trying to order what cannot be ordered , trying to ‘make sense’ of something, which is what it must have been like trying to understand what was happening on the Zong”( Philip 192). She states she made the poems like this to try to make it hard to understand in the same ways it was hard to understand what was happening on this ship. The Zong images are horrible. You can tell the slaves being thrown overboard were helpless and could do nothing to save themselves; a feeling no one should feel ever. There’s no particular time I can recall a discriminatory act happening in front of me, but for now on I will always stand up anyone feeling attacked no matter what color their skin is. This class has furthered my knowledge that no one should be put down based on ethnicity or race.

  3. Hey Maddy, great analysis of Zong! I love how you included the photo of the slaves being pushed overboard because when I read I found this image to be on of the most powerful. Zong! #3 said “ the some of negroes…over…board…the rest in lives…drowned” I found the spacing of the words confusing to read, and the ideas in the poems quite disturbing since it literally says the slaves were thrown overboard and they all drowned. I was focused a lot on the words on pages 3 and 4 about water because I was trying to figure out the meaning behind it so I love how you gave information on water the water could represent.

  4. Hello Maddy! First of all I loved your blog post! I also had to read the first pages aloud because it was hard for me to understand what was going on!
    After reading your blog post about the history of the ship, I knew that the story was familiar to me but I did not remember why, then, after doing some research, I found out why: in the 2013 movie Belle, the Zong massacre is addressed as the trial is part of the plot of the movie! (the movie is based on the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an African slave, daughter of an admiral), here is the part of the movie in which they talk about the massacre:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oE6pfYSj-k

    (If you haven’t, check the movie because it is great!)

    It also caught my attention the fact that the painting Rankine uses at the end of Citizen could be referring / inspired to / by the Zong massacre, don’t you think?

    Answering your questions, my experience was… interesting I would say, because I was a little bit lost at the beginning, but really amazed by the way the author makes us fell only with some words placed the way they are, as, for example, with the “water” example you pointed out.
    The image really disturbs me… I can’t believe atrocities like this were happening, and, as you said, are still happening somehow today… ignorance and hate truly move people and that is something inexplicable and horrifying.

  5. Hey maddy! Your analysis of Zong! was awesome. When I was reading, I had to do the same thing as you did… read them out loud. Even reading them out loud didn’t help me to understand them any better. I have never read poems that are obscure like the one you put in this blog post. These complex structures definitely had me confused. I finally realized there isn’t one true way of reading them. The image of the Zong massacre makes me feel sick. These people were helpless and had no voice. Which ties into today and how African Americans still feel helpless and have little to no voice in society. The image shows how the white man was being selfish and only thinking about his own health. He treated these African American people like they were animals, like they didn’t even matter to the world.

  6. Hi Maddy! I liked how you interpreted the different parts of these poems and gave us an insight of a little bit of the history behind this text to help us understand it better. As I began reading this book I was having trouble understanding what was going on. But I found much of it to be interesting. The breaking up and spaces between the words and the uncompleted thoughts forced me to dig a bit deeper into these poems. On page 16, out of the scattered words across the page, this part stood out to me “the good of overboard justified a throwing of property,” (Phillip). The captain and his workers on the ship used the sea to their own advantage by throwing these enslaved African Americans over. Also, since enslaved African Americans were seen as property throwing them overboard did not seem inhumane to the captain and his workers on this ship. The Zong massacre photo makes me uneasy because I can see an African American being flung into the water and it seems to be a little difficult for the two white men to get him into the water he may be even fighting back. One of them has their sword or some type of weapon raised which I’m sure was used to puncture the bodies of other enslaved African Americans who fought back as they were being thrown overboard.

  7. Hi, Maddy! I loved your blog post on Zong! and enjoyed your title. Reading these poem, I was a little confused. You state that, “Poetry is defined as a type of literature or artistic writing that attempts to stir a reader’s imagination/emotions. It can help us understand issues that occur not only in the present but in the past as well,” yet reading these poems seemed to confuse me even more. Once I started reading pages 183-207, I started to gain more clarifaction on the matter. James Walvin states that Zong massacre is “the most grotesquely bizzare of all slave cases heard in an English court” (189). I feel that the historical background on the event clarified my confusion!

    Focusing on Zong! #3 :
    I found the spacing between the lines of the poem to be quite confusing when reading them the first time. After I read the poem for a second time, I tried to understand the purpose of the spacing. I feel as if the spaces between the lines are meant to represent the depth in the poetry, as well as plaes emphasis on the tragedy. It also impacts how the poem is read. When reading this poem in my head, I rushed through it, trying to make sense of what I just read. When reading it aloud, I understand that this poem needs to be read at a slower place, further placing depth on the events in the poem.

  8. Hi Maddy!
    Great job on your blog post! I enjoyed reading your connection between slavery and the importance of water. I also appreciated that you provided research and an image to relate to your analysis. To answer your first question, I did find some of the complex structures in the reading to be super confusing. For a lot of the reading, I did not understand what the words were supposed to be doing. As I found out towards the end of the reading, there is no “complete story” that exists because”all that remains are the legal texts and documents” (196). Philip tells us that through Zong!, she was attempting to “exhume” the bodies, the bones, of the dead from their seawater grave (201-202). By taking language apart, word by word, letter by letter, Philip has created an altered space—a sacred space—in which the voices of the dead and the dead themselves come through to tell their story. One that “cannot be told yet must be told, but only through its un-telling” (207). Zong! acts as a magnifying glass trying to decode the truth underneath the legal documents, trying to give a voice to those who are silenced. It is hard to make sense of an act so haunting, so terrible, and so perplexing because there are no true answers. I believe that this is why her poems are so complex and hard to read.

  9. hi, Maddy!
    At first glance I did not know how to feel about the book, I did no research into it, I kinda just picked it up and I was like what?? But as I started reading I found it fascinating and loved it, even though it explains a sad time in history. I read it left to right, no matter where the other words were and did not really think about reading it any other way to begin with, but now that it has been pointed out I might give it a go. So I had no trouble with it and I wrote little notes to myself about what I thought it meant. The image of the massacre makes me upset, simply because I cannot understand why people would feel like they can treat others like that and I never understood how you can view another person as property. It is a dreadful thing to think about, however, it is in our history many times. I have not seen any discriminatory acts that I am aware of, but I could have just been totally ignorant at the moment and just not noticed.

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