(Re)writing the (His)story of the Zong

In Feeding the Ghosts, a man reimagines women’s suffering during the Transatlantic slave trade — and with more accuracy than female slave writers ever could.

“[I]f the black man is silenced in history, what is the nature of the censure of the black women?”

“piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152),

Hence, D’Aguiar changes the gender of the slave who allegedly survived the Zong jettison from male to female in order to depict an enslaved woman’s life in a historically more accurate manner than antebellum female slave narratives could.

1. Sexual Violence

“[s]lave narrators regularly adopted the current literary conventions and made little attempt to create new forms or standards” (44)

Since admitting to having been raped meant admitting to one’s loss of purity, the language describing sexual assault in female slave narratives was often marked by “pleading for pity and assistance” from the reader in order to convince the white audience that a slave woman was not a seductress but a victim of crime (Nudelman 939).

Who ordered pepper to be daubed on my eyes? Captain Cunningham. […] And who carried out the order and for good measure rubbed more pepper between my legs and pushed some into my body? The second mate and the boatswain. Who watched and did nothing to stop them? Kelsal. (D’Aguiar 215)

2. Motherhood

“slave women had access to means of avoiding childbirth. That they took advantage of them is confirmed by the frequent accusations of planters and doctors” (29).

What fertility gods? Fructification for whose benefit? Her womb ached and her blood flowed for nothing. […] She wanted her blood to run dry and for the intricate apparatus that she harboured inside to dislodge from its moorings and drift out of her; to expel it and never feel that particular pain again and never bleed for any god, any dance. (D’Aguiar 40)

On land I waited to bleed. Months became years. Lovers wanted sons and daughters from me. Not for themselves, they professed, but for me, for someone like me, who should be made into newer shapes of people. But the moon failed as a bribe. I remembered the dances but refused to perform them. (D’Aguiar 210)

3. Christianity

“I am Mintah. I was thrown into the sea and the god of wood held out his hand to me and I took it and climbed out of the sea” (D’Aguiar 134).

Men and women dance and raise a lot of dust. Drums, whistles, horns, singing and clapping fill my ears, nose, eyes and mouth. […] I have seen these figures in other dreams moving like this. I shaped them out of wood. I thought the shapes were trying to rise from the sea, but now I know they were dances. […] A young woman moves in front of me in a pattern I recognise. I see myself at her age on the deck of the Zong in the throes of the fertility dance. […] I know what she will do before she does it. I remember. I told it in wood. (D’Aguiar 218 –9)

4. Revolt

women-led rebellions not only existed but were also carefully organised, violent in nature, and involved whole communities of female slaves ready to fight for their freedom (Gaspar and Hine ix).

In her other hand she showed them [the slaves in the men’s section of the Zong] a few long nails and a file. The men smiled and nodded. They crept forward and all wanted to talk to her at once. […] Mintah stopped them and explained that they were not to free themselves right away. They should conceal the file and nails until they got her signal. (D’Aguiar 87–8)

[u]nlike men, women were rarely shackled on board ship, even at the African coast. Moreover, though usually housed separately from adult males, women were often accommodated close to the officers’ quarters as well as to weapon stores and keys. Because they were sometimes abused sexually by the crew, they may also have had better access to information vital to the planning of revolts. (76)

The four young men bunched behind Mintah. One had a pike ready. Nails were gripped by the three others. […] They grabbed a crewman who was walking past and was too surprised even to scream. The pike was brought down on his head several times while the others tore his skin with their nails. […] Mintah signalled them to stop. The sailor swayed on his knees. Mintah grabbed him and the men helped her lift him. They hoisted him high into the air, screamed in triumph and threw him over the side. (D’Aguiar 106–7).

5. Literacy

[t]hrough their use of language, male narrators strove to demonstrate their place as men among men, that they had a right to autonomy in a political democracy based on a voter’s ability to understand and debate the issues. […] Women narrators related to feminine culture of their time, and that involved telling their stories in terms of relationships. (76)

[H]e hugs me up to my feet with the book pressed between me and him. My head swims with the cheering and clapping and whistles.

‘Mintah, all my life I search for you.’

‘All of mine I been waiting for you.’

Simon and my book are in my arms. (D’Aguiar 221)

Is that why I sleep so deep? Knowing I’ve found a way to get what I see on this ship out of me? Ink, pen and paper as if an answer to the prayer I never got around to offering. And I laugh because it’s as if I have come across a trunk with soil in it. The soil I thought I would never see. (D’Aguiar 191)


“[s]lavery is terrible for men: but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiar to their own” (119).

Works Cited

Creative Writing student in Nottingham. Published by The London Magazine, Ambit, Firewords, Poetry Society, The Moth, Acumen, etc. On Twitter as @VitovaDenisa

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