GREGSON v. GILBERT. Thursday, 22d May, 1783. Where the captain of a slaveship mistook Hispanola for Jamaica, whereby the voyage being retarded, and the water falling short, several of the slaves died for want of water, and others were thrown overboard, it was held that these facts did not support a statement in the declaration, that by the perils of the seas, and contrary winds and currents, the ship was retarded in her voyage, and by reason thereof so much of the water on board was spent, that some of the negroes died for want of sustenance, and others were thrown overboard for the preservation of the rest.

This formal, robotic, legal retelling of a tragic event sounds straight from a despicable dystopia. A world where humans can be bought and sold as a commodity. Where in order to protect insurance assets, one-hundred-and-fifty human beings are drowned in the cold rough waves of the Atlantic ocean. This is not a work of fiction. This is the story of the Zong case, and the basis for M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! poems.

By dissecting this passage, and other sections of the case, Philip develops Zong!‘s unique style. It is easy to see the chunk of legal text up there and just gloss over it. However, when the words are stretched out, rearranged, you must consider what really happened. Not just loss, death. People died. Humans died. Not cargo. Not casualty. And reading through the poems out loud, the reader will stumble. It is not written with the logical confines of English text, because it is not about anything logical. People should not have died in the way they did. Humans should not be used in the way they were used. This world should just be dystopian fiction, not history, not reality. And yet it is. This happened. This is happening. Slavery is not a fiction in the world we live in. It is a harsh realiy that we brush under the rug, we avert our eyes to it. Zong! seeks to undo this. To point our faces into the terrible underbelly of our society and remember.

several of the slaves died for want of water

is transformed into the difficult to replicate first poem of the Zong! series. The double-ues are stretched out and repeated, changing the phrase “for want of water” into an admittedly creepy moan. She takes us into the minds of a hypothetical witness to the court case, one who has a conscience and empathy for the loss of life, and feels sickened by the events unfolding before them. Zong! #4 really captures the harshness of such a tale by stating that

this is

not was


should be

this be


should be






What happened to the Zong “is,” not “was.” It is not just a part of history, but something with effects to this day. It is not past tense. However, what happened also “should not be is,” it should not be a present issue. Yet, slavery is still something that occurs globally, and even within North America, where Philip resides. Slavery is, a real issue, not just was one that we can blame on the past, and that is in part what Zong! is supposed to make us aware of.

Zong! functions as an onomatopoeia, an exclamation, a chant. Its meaning is in the exclamaiton, in the sound it makes. It is more than the name of a slaveship. It is more than a combination of letters. It is a eulogy, a song of the human soul.


9 thoughts on “ZONG!

  1. I really like your point about reading the poems aloud, how the reader stumbles over the words because of the fact that it is not written in the confines of logic. That is exactly how I felt while I was reading the collection of poems. I was confused, I tried reading the words in different sequencing, and sometimes I felt I understood, but other times I was still just as lost. It wasn’t until I read the explanation of the Zong case that I started to grasp what Philip was trying to express. The notion of telling by not telling began to take shape in the strange patterns of the seemingly random words in each poem. Upon first reading them, the words mean nothing or very little, but as you continue on, or at least as I continued on, the story began to become evident. In just a few lines of “nonsense” Philip was able to tell the story of what happened on the Zong, without actually telling the story.



  2. I completely agree with your comparison of how the poem is written illogically, and your idea that the lack of logic stems from the lack of logic that originates with the needless and illogical loss of life as a result of 150 slaves being thrown overboard for insurance purposes. The poem itself is disconnected, but when the explanation of it is read, we come to understand that the author found it impossible to “tell” the story. This gives us further insight into why the poem is so disjointed and scattered. The explanation as told by the author is what allows the poem’s true message to come through.

    -Matthew Berns


  3. I totally agree with your point about slavery still being an issue today. Because we don’t see it happening around us so we just assume that it’s not a concerning matter anymore, but it is happening world wide as we speak now. Zong makes us aware of this issue by bringing our attention to it.


  4. I also agree with the point your making about how the poem is written in this sort of messed way and how this is similar to their messed up practice of throwing 150 slaves overboard. The author is trying to make a point of how these two are linked together


  5. I really like your comparison with the illogical pattern of the poem to the illogical idea of simply killing innocent lives for a horrible reason. Trying to read the poem and attempting to understand what it was even saying is a parallel to the confusion Philip felt during the entire situation. When something is out of order or uncomfortable to a person, he or she tries to avoid it and that is also a symbol of how some people try to avoid the topic of slavery since it such a horrid and depressing situation to even bring up, thus I completely agree with your statement of how the purpose of Zong is to help people not forget about such tragic events.


  6. You make a lot of really great points here! I definitely agree that much of the meaning of Zong! is in the unconventional arrangement of words and letters, and “in the sound it makes,” as you said. The way that the words and letters are spread out in Zong! #1, for instance, made me think of the ocean, which of course made me think about the slaves who were drowned, ostensibly, “for want of water.” Seeing the words with that imagery in mind made the poem feel really poignant for me, even though the words themselves seemed confusing. Throughout all of the poems in Zong!, Phillip takes the horrifyingly dispassionate words used in the Zong case and rearranges them, interrupts them, and repeats them in ways that make it impossible to ignore the reality of what happened on the Zong ship and the reality of slavery.

    -Marjorie Eyong


  7. You really made a good point when you emphasized that this poem is really not a logical poem. The style of the poem reflects the subject of the poem very well. Slavery is not a very logical either. The fact that the poem is written with separation between words provides a choppy nature to it, possibly related to the choppy nature of the ocean related to the ship. I like that you said that Zong! becomes a eulogy for the deaths of many who had to undergo this experience. I think it is very true.


  8. Slavery, obviously a very big part in American history, is still, like you said a very big issue all over the globe. However, the idea of treating another human as a commodity that can be traded, mistreated, and disposed of, is disgusting and very illogical. When reading the poems and then the story I found that it was much easier to understand the choppiness and the style of the poems after reading the story. I also really enjoyed the fact that you noticed “Zong!” was an onomatopoeia, that was something that I would have not have noticed myself. I took that idea in as I read through the story and I found that I was making several connections to the title. One reoccurring theme that I notice throughout the story was the words, “There is not telling this story; it must be told,” I noticed this sentence a few times and I believe it is true because if this story is never told, we can never learn from the mistakes made in the past and the mistakes that are still being made. Without this story never being told we can not change out actions.


  9. First I would like to acknowledge that I have not been particularly fond of “impact-poetry” in the past. How ever I think the circumstances surrounding this poem are the perfect conditions for this style. I think that the intention of this style was to set-up an uneasy and chaotic pretense for the series as a whole. The first “Zong!” to me should not be interpreted by examining specific letters and words, but rather looked at as a whole with one simple impact – frenzy. The word frenzy is mentioned several times throughout the series and I think the first zong exemplifies this perfectly. Fragments, gaps between clusters of letters – nonsense. What this style of poetry allows for is the illustration of the horrific circumstance it’s based around. Something so maddening and ridiculous that it cannot be properly expressed through textual explanation. Great analysis.


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