I understand that the transatlantic slave trade and refugee migration are different. Africans were kidnapped, trafficked and enslaved; today’s refugees and migrants are forced to flee through dangerous routes due to poverty, war and crisis. But as different as these two historical events are, they share the cruelty and global apathy that allowed them to happen. And the result is fundamentally similar: people denied their homes, their humanity and, too often, their lives.
In particular, the Hadrian disaster reminded me of the case of the slave ship Zong. (Its original name was actually Zorgmeaning “care” in Dutch, but a mistake was apparently made when the name was painted.) In 1781, the ship sailed from Ghana, packed with twice as many people as it was built to hold. The owners of the Zong claimed that, due to dwindling drinking water supplies, they were forced to throw more than 130 living enslaved people into the sea. When the ship owners tried to collect compensation to compensate for the loss of their slain cargo, the insurers refused to pay, and the two parties went to court in the historic Gregson v. Gilbert trial of 1783. As the underwriters argued, the crew had several opportunities to replenish their water supplies from rainfall and various ports, but instead killed the Africans to make a profit.
If, how James Walvinthe author of “The Zong: Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery”, calls it, the Zong case was “mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim”, then the Hadrian disaster was mass disease masquerading as a claim to innocence. .
The Western world often turns its back on refugees and migrants fleeing the flames of conflicts we have created, claiming it is not our problem. Yet perhaps the real truth is unbearable: that we, who watch others suffer and do nothing, are responsible for the tragedies we witness. I write not to cleanse my hands of these crimes, but to honor those who are still in the water.
Deeply inspired by the Canadian poet M. NourbeSe Philipthe book-length poem of “Zong!” — built only from a text that appears in the court report of the Gregson v. Gilbert case — I wrote my own erasure, or “found” poem, from the same source. By writing an elegy with the words of history, I hope to exhume, or drown, the dead from beneath a mass of waves.