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
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.