“[I]f the black man is silenced in history, what is the nature of the censure of the black women?”
This is what British-Guyanese author Fred D’Aguiar asked himself before creating Mintah, the female protagonist of his 1997 middle-passage novel Feeding the Ghosts (Frías 422). The text was based on the 1781 Zong slave-ship massacre, during which one hundred and thirty-two allegedly ill slaves were thrown overboard by the crew who hoped to receive insurance money for the human cargo; however, D’Aguiar’s writing challenges the overly male perspective on these historical events — as well as on slavery in general — by reimagining them through a woman’s eyes (Brown 159).
The main counterfactual element of the novel is thus embodied by the rebellious and independent Mintah, a fictional African woman sold to the Zong, whose survival story, except for her gender, corresponds with that of the only jettison survivor. According to the memoir of the eighteenth-century abolitionist Granville Sharp, one jettisoned male slave survived by “laying hold of a rope which hung from the ship” (Hoare 243), just as Mintah does in Feeding the Ghosts. By altering the survivor’s gender from male to female, D’Aguiar gives a voice to the female slave figure who, before the abolition of slavery, had been oppressed by not only slaveholders but also white readers.
Since the white audience imposed their expectations of true womanhood on female slave characters, requiring them to show
“piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 152),
it prevented the full female slave experience from being portrayed in literature of the antebellum period. Such oppression also affected slave narratives, i.e. ex-slaves’ autobiographical recollections of slavery written in the eighteenth and nineteenth century for abolitionist purposes, by female authors (Olney 47). As a result, female ex-slave writers had “to convince their [white] readers that they were […] no[t] the fallen women that stereotypes have labelled them” instead of focusing on their individualism as male ex-slave authors did (Morgan 90).
Despite Feeding the Ghosts not being an autobiographical account, the text shares many similarities with slave narratives, such as the “description of a cruel master”, “of families being separated and destroyed”, or “of the amounts and kinds of food and clothing given to slaves” (Olney 50–1). However, D’Aguiar not only imitates the genre but also reinvents it by exposing those aspects of slave women’s lives which were hidden by sexism, racism, and social constraints of the antebellum era.
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.
 The archive of the Zong consists of eyewitness testimonies by the first mate James Kelsall and passenger Robert Stubbs, the governor of Annamaboe (the ship’s logbook disappeared together with the death of its captain Luke Collingwood just a couple of weeks after landing) (Lewis 367). In general, the majority of either slaveholders’ documents or slave accounts were also written by men (Dunaway).
1. Sexual Violence
As Frances Smith Foster notes,
“[s]lave narrators regularly adopted the current literary conventions and made little attempt to create new forms or standards” (44)
since they did not aim at reaching refined readers but rather the largest audience possible to achieve the abolitionist goal of their narratives. In order to do so, female ex-slave authors had to comply with the “cult of true womanhood” that required female heroines to be pious, pure, and submissive (Welter 152). This means that women authors adjusted their narrative style to the sentimental and domestic novels popular during the antebellum period (Smith Foster 44). These texts were characterised by “the highly stylized and oblique langue” which stood in sharp contrast to the scenes of violence and torture (Nudelman 939), often sexual in nature, describing the abuse female slaves had to face. According to Smith Foster, “Victorian standards of the age made it necessary to be less graphic” especially regarding sexual abuse, so that abstract phrases such as “forced ‘submission to their [master’s] will’” were used to signify rape (109).
However, the female slave writers’ assimilation to “the purely ‘white’ language” connected with “a narrow white Christian morality” of the antebellum era is nowadays considered inadequate for portraying women slaves’ suffering (Tanner 418–9). In Feeding the Ghosts, D’Aguiar avoids this inadequacy by explicitly depicting Mintah’s near-rape experience aboard the Zong: “He knocks me down. Others pin my arms and legs. Then the boatswain stands over me and unbuckles his trousers” (186). By employing the present tense in this particular scene as well as whenever Mintah is the first-person narrator, D’Aguiar achieves a more direct tone than the traditional slave narratives’ past tense, since the attempted sexual assault is narrated as if it were happening in the moment the reader reads the scene.
This sense of immediacy is additionally reinforced as the narrator does not interpret the events but rather restricts herself to an uncommented description of the abuse; in contrast, antebellum female slave narrators narrated their experiences in retrospect, which allowed them to comment on sexual violence, often “referring to rape in the softened term of ‘insult’” (DeGout 3). Thus, female slave narrators used to apologetically appeal to the reader, “speaking in a voice that demands sympathy” (Cutter 222), and to conceal the extent of their sexual abuse.
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).
In this sense, Mintah’s narrative voice offers a more realistic portrayal of a female slave’s sexual abuse, since she blatantly describes the torment women slaves were subjected to without having to consider the moral standards of the antebellum era. This frankness also becomes apparent when Mintah is tortured with pepper smeared in her eyes and in her vagina:
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)
Instead of choosing abstract formulaic expressions to lighten the depiction of torture and sexual violence, D’Aguiar employs diverse verbs such as “daub”, “rub” or “push” to accurately describe what is being done to Mintah’s body.
Furthermore, while antebellum ex-slave writers use the passive construction when writing about violence (“was flogged”, “was whipped”, “was stripped”, etc.) to highlight that “the body is an entity imposed upon”, D’Aguiar mostly uses the active voice (“who ordered”, “who rubbed”, “who watched”, etc.) so that the focus is not on the victim but instead on the perpetrator (Barrett 430). This emphasis on the slaver’s role as the initiator of the abuse is also stressed by the series of “who”-questions answered with the names of the Zong crew. While female slave narrators used to appeal “to the emotions of […] readers by clearly depicting the slaves as suffering human beings” when describing sexual violence, Mintah presents the realities of her torture in a sober, almost judicial manner, identifying each culprit by name instead of calling them “master” (Lahure 53). By naming the abusers and highlighting their culpability through the active construction, D’Aguair creates a narrative voice that, instead of seeking sympathy from the reader and excusing the alleged loss of sexual purity, systematically delineates who is to be blamed for the abuse.
Another indicator that Feeding the Ghosts provides a historically more accurate portrayal of a slave woman’s life is Mintah’s active rejection of motherhood. As historian Stella Dadzie argues
“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).
However, female ex-slave writers were often confronted with “the polarizing historical frame of resistant s/heroes and dedicated mothers” (Turner 245, emphasis in the original): on the one hand, admitting a refusal to bear children for their masters would show resistance to slavery; on the other hand, the white readership would consider this resistance an attack on the nineteenth-century cult of sacred motherhood reinforced by white clergy comparing mothers to Madonnas (Padhi 27). In fact, Loucynda Jenser, who conducted a study on female slave resistance, was able to find merely four primary sources in which slave women admitted to abortion, and thus confirmed the prevailing invisibility of pregnancy-related forms of rebellion in slave narratives (17).
In Feeding the Ghosts, however, Mintah’s refusal to be used as a breeder for her masters and overseers is openly thematised: in the beginning of the novel, Mintah decides to “dance the death of fertility dance” in order to induce her menstrual bleeding, and hence avoid rape by the ship’s crew, but later regrets her decision (D’Aguiar 31). After realising that even her fertility can be instrumentalised in the hands of slaveholders, Mintah questions her actions:
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)
In this passage, Mintah refuses to become a mother by expressing her wish to stop her reproductive organs from benefitting the slaveholders — a thought which remained unvoiced in traditional female slave narratives.
Furthermore, Mintah does not only reject motherhood but also explicitly refuses the idea of her body being used to produce more bodies. Years after the Zong massacre, Mintah, now a free woman, recalls:
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)
The reader learns not only that Mintah’s wish to become sterile had been fulfilled, but also that even though she believes to be capable of curing her infertility by performing the fertility dance, she actively refuses to bear children. The metaphor of “being made into newer shapes of people” corresponds with the notion that motherhood “loses its sacredness in slavery”, since the female slave’s body was regarded as nothing more than a commodity and a means to increase a slaver’s capital (Meillassoux 64). Thus, although many historians (cf. Jennifer L. Morgan, Deborah White, Darlene Clark Hine) examining medical records and other secondary sources considered the “gynecological revolt”, i.e. self-mutilation of reproductive organs and abortion, a common “act of defiance against sexual exploitation and the capital claims slaveholders made on women’s reproductive ability”, female ex-slave writers often concealed these realities as well as their negative feelings towards motherhood out of fear of scandalising their white Christian audience (Turner 233).
In Feeding the Ghosts, however, Mintah openly voices her belief that, instead of being sacred, motherhood is an accumulation of a man’s capital and a tool to dehumanise and control women, since as mothers, female slaves had to face further deprivation of their human rights: as Hortense Spillers states, “under conditions of captivity, the offspring of the female d[id] not ‘belong’ to the Mother” but could be taken away from her at any time (74).
Accordingly, even as a free woman Mintah still openly resists to be objectified, reduced to her body and its reproductive abilities, and exploited as an incubator for more bodies by any man, white or black, master or slave.
A further indication of Feeding the Ghosts depicting an enslaved woman’s life with more historical accuracy than traditional female slave narratives did is that Mintah does not convert to Christianity. Although slaves brought to America had their own religious rituals such as idolatrous dancing — which Mintah performs for the fertility god — the African indigenous religions were supressed by the white masters who condemned such practices as savage and heathen (Floyd 38–9).
Since slave narrators aimed at convincing the white audience that they shared the same moral values, one of the conventions of slave narratives was “a clear presentation of their [the narrators’] Christianity” (Monitz 32). For female ex-slave authors, such as Harriet Jacobs whose autobiography is one of the best-known female slave narratives, this meant that their texts had to highlight a connection “between sexual purity and spirituality, a connection which […] indeed was prevalent among Christians” of the antebellum era (Taves 60). The fact that this convention is “what shaped her [Jacob’s] narrative into the story of a self-sacrificing mother repentant for her sin” of having an affair in order to escape her abusive master exemplifies how strongly Christian values affected the way female ex-slaves narrated their lives (Monitz 32).
Although Mintah also renounces African gods for the Christian God, her conversion is only temporary, since she later admits returning to her spiritual roots (D’Aguiar 64). After surviving the jettison, Mintah acknowledges the African wood-god again, praising him as her saviour, and thus rejects to identify as strictly Christian:
“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).
By choosing African spirituality instead of Christianity, Mintah neither attempts to link her narrative to Christian ideas of sexual purity nor presents herself as converted to Christian faith.
Furthermore, Mintah proclaims that even on land “wood has promised salvation”, which highlights that her source of hope and faith is not only the wood-god instead of the Christian God but also the physicality of wood itself as opposed to abstract Christian ideas (Aguiar 210). Wood is a particularly important trope, since Mintah’s relationship with this material functions as a metaphor for her roots and African spirituality throughout the whole text. Taught by her father how to carpenter, Mintah carves figures reminiscent of a “man, woman or child reaching up out of the depths” of the sea to overcome the middle-passage trauma (D’Aguiar 208–9). Her seeking solace not in Christian faith but in a tangible material such as wood represents the female slaves’ need for African spirituality connected to physicality instead of Christian morality suppressing it. This connection between African religions and physicality also becomes apparent as Mintah draws a parallel between her wood carvings and the idolatrous dances typical of African religious ceremonies:
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)
In this daydream, Mintah sees the spirits of the slaves who were thrown into the sea in her wooden figures. The image of these spirits performing African dances shows no trace of Christianity but rather stresses Mintah’s loyalty to the traditional deities of her ancestors. Moreover, the re-emergence of the dance for the fertility god denies the need for faith to guarantee sexual purity but rather pays tribute to sexual prowess worshipped in African culture (Floyd 39).
Despite some historians arguing that women slaves were not involved in revolts “because, as mothers of children and nurturers of their families, they engaged in less confrontational or nonviolent forms of resistance”, others argue that
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).
For instance, Rebecca Hall discovered the existence of a fairly large female-led revolt in a court case transcript from 1812: a slave named Tom, initially considered the leader of the rebellion, confessed that slave Celia instigated the conspiracy and that “he knew of a great many — thirty or forty — [women] who planned to use stolen weapons to create an army of resistance” (1). Hall, who wrote her dissertation on female-led slave revolts, explains that it is not entirely impossible but difficult to find proof of rebellions organised by women because their occurrences are silenced by “the gendering of both primary sources and historians’ subsequent interpretation of those sources” (4). Thus, even female slave narratives, despite being first-hand accounts of slavery, might be unable to report any female-led revolts due to “the tradition of specific gender ideologies” such as the “predisposition to view women as unable or unwilling to engage in organized violent rebellion”, which “impacted the creation of the primary sources themselves” (Hall 5).
By making Mintah a leader of a ship mutiny, D’Aguiar agrees with those historians who believe that women were capable of not only performing subtle acts of resistance in the domestic sphere such as “working slowly” or “falsifying illness” but also of organised violent uprisings (Myers 144). Mintah’s status as the revolt’s instigator becomes apparent in the following passage:
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)
By creeping forward in a submissive motion and waiting for Mintah’s signal, the men exhibit their acknowledgement of a female slave as their leader, which is an image opposing the portrayal of women slaves in antebellum female slave narratives.
The way men slaves accept Mintah not only as a provider of weapons but also as a leader of the revolt shows D’Aguiar’s commitment to depict the female slave experience in a historically accurate manner. As David Richardson notes, even though primary sources mainly report that rebellions at sea were led by male slaves, “the role of women in supporting or encouraging revolts has perhaps not been fully appreciated” (76). Richardson explains that
[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)
Since female slaves could move around the ship more freely than male slaves and had more contact with the crew, it seems reasonable to assume that women often became the brain behind mutinies. In Feeding the Ghosts, Mintah’s leadership in the revolt is additionally stressed by her leading role not only as an organiser but also as an active participator:
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).
By obeying Mintah’s signal, the male slaves mark Mintah as their leader. Furthermore, Mintah is the one who initiates the sailor’s execution while the men merely follow her lead. While antebellum female ex-slave writers had to conceal their involvement in violent uprisings, since such activities did not agree with the white readers’ concept of femininity, D’Aguiar’s novel exposes this historical reality.
Since many states prohibited slaves from learning how to read and write, slave literacy in the antebellum era symbolised resistance (Cornelius 174). Especially for women slaves, who had to face an even greater oppression than men slaves, literary independence was an important tool of empowerment; however, Winifred Morgan notes that “[w]hile male [slave] narrators accentuate the role of literacy, females stress the importance of relationships” (76). As Morgan explains,
[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)
This stereotypical depiction of women as interested in romance or friendship rather than reading or writing perpetuated by the antebellum white readers’ idea of femininity is broken in D’Aguiar’s novel, since relationships and literacy play at least an equal part in Mintah’s story. After surviving the Zong jettison, Mintah, hiding in the ship’s storeroom, writes a book “about what had happened on the Zong” which she later gives to Simon, the cook’s assistant she befriends (D’Aguiar 151). Although Mintah’s and Simon’s relationship is an important part of the novel, it is mostly mentioned in some connection to Mintah’s book. Even when Mintah, already a free woman, dreams of meeting Simon again, he appears in her dream bringing her book:
[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)
Mintah’s answer to Simon creates ambiguity, since it is unclear whether she had been waiting for Simon or her book, and therefore ensures that neither Mintah’s literacy nor her relationship with Simon becomes inferior to the other. Moreover, the book pressed between their bodies functions as a symbol of the power Mintah’s literacy has, as it binds two people of different social standing together.
The power of Mintah’s writing is further highlighted by the fact that her book acts as a counterpoint to the captain’s ledger which “is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb” (Hartman 2): while each slave thrown into the sea is entered into the Zong’s logbook as a mere hashmark, Mintah’s written account gives voice to the dead and undermines the captain’s authority to reduce slaves to anonymous numbers on a page.
In contrast to traditional female slave narratives, Mintah’s literacy is also not marginalised but rather presented as a turning point in the novel, since her book resurfaces during the court trial between the Zong’s owners and the insurance company. By providing evidence against the Zong’s crew, Mintah’s ability to write poses a threat to the slavers, and thus plays a key role in the text. Furthermore, Feeding the Ghosts challenges the assumption that “being literate never saved women […] from the burdens of slavery” by showing how literacy offered Mintah a relief from the horrors of captivity (Morgan 82). Upon finding a trunk with writing utensils in the ship’s storeroom, Mintah feels at peace again:
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)
After weeks of displacement at sea, the comparison of finding ink, pen, and paper to seeing land again is a powerful metaphor for literacy as a source of hope and rootedness. It gives Mintah not only a voice but also, as she points out, a therapeutic device: “Writing can contain the worst things. So I forget on paper” (D’Aguiar 196). This view on literacy as a tool for psychological healing “leading to individual freedom” differs from traditional female slave narratives which described literary independence as a means of achieving a collective abolitionist goal (Morgan 81).
However, this essay should not imply that women ex-slave authors did not provide an important insight into the oppression a female slave had to face as a “[b]lack in a white society, slave in a free society, [and a] woman in a society ruled by men” (Gray White 15). Female slave narratives reveal that slave women were victims of not only institutionalised slavery but paradoxically also of the abolitionist movement.
The former, i.e. the impact of slavery on female slaves, is best summarised by Harriet Jacobs who famously wrote that
“[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).
As for the oppressive side of the abolitionist movement, ex-slave writers of the antebellum era could only publish their narrative with a “white-authored preface and letters confirming the identity and experiences of the narrator”, which meant that they were once again oppressed “by an authority acceptable to white, patriarchal America” (Wood 84).
Since white abolitionists used female slave narratives as evidence that black women were able to comply with Christian moral values as well as antebellum ideals of femininity, and therefore deserved to be freed, they often imposed their own standards of pure womanhood on the ex-slaves’ texts (Morgan 90). Hence, if “the narrative lives of the [male] ex-slaves were as much possessed and used by the abolitionists as their actual lives had been by slaveholders”, then a female slave’s life had been instrumentalised not two but three times: by slavers, abolitionists, and the cult of true womanhood (Olney 51). Since the latter required women (slave narrators) to present themselves as pure, nurturing figures serving their communities rather than autonomous “rugged individualists” chasing personal goals as was common for men (slave narrators), female slave narratives are filled with silences when it comes to sexual abuse, motherhood, religion, violent revolts, and literacy (Morgan 83).
However, in the last few decades, this silence became a subject of interest to historians, sociologists, literary critics but also novelists such as Fred D’Aguiar. In contrast to less artistic approaches, D’Aguiar did more than fill in the gaps: by changing the gender of the jettison survivor from male to female and re-imaging the Zong massacre as well as its aftermath through the eyes of a female heroine, he revealed the parts of slave women’s history which had until then been supressed into invisibility. Thus, Feeding the Ghosts creates a counter-memory for not only the victims of the Zong but also for all female slaves previously silenced both in their lives and on paper.
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