Books: Ship of fools

FEEDING THE GHOSTS by Fred D'Aguiar Chatto pounds 14.99
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I thought , `Of all the things you have done in life, Dawson, of all the underhand things, this is the lowest and meanest'." So spoke the second mate of the slaving ship Zong, when called before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield at the hearing to determine whether or not the ship's captain had been justified in ordering his men to throw overboard 131 living slaves, and in claiming the insurance - pounds 39 per head - for the value of the "stock". But Dawson went on: "True, it didn't feel right. But by God it was necessary."

Fred D'Aguiar has taken the story of a slaver who descends to an insurance scam, and to the greatest depths of human horror. He tells it partly through the voice of Mintah, a mission-educated, literate and English-speaking slave. First, though, we hear the voice of reason in Captain Cunningham - the kind of reason that leads inexorably to the conclusion that, because the ship has been lost and delayed, because rations are short, because sickness is threatening to decimate cargo and crew alike, he must find "a solution that requires of us all a degree of brass courage". Why wait until the sick slaves die, as they surely will, before disposing of them into the sea? It's nothing but a waste of scarce food and water, and a further risk of infection. They must "act decisively or return to families and friends and investors empty-handed". Are they to make a loss or a profit?

In setting up this stark and horrifying scenario, D'Aguiar elaborates a framework for displaying the slow, terribly easy creep of moral putrefaction in human beings. Very soon, the inevitable happens: when a few living bodies are hurled overboard, too sick to struggle much, the liveliest and strongest of the slaves - Mintah among them - become unmanageably restless in their protest. Mintah, it turns out, knew the first mate when he was marooned and sick among Africans in the mission where she grew up. She calls his name, the voice of his conscience. Unable to bear this evidence of humanity in his victims, he first beats and tortures her, then asks the captain to have her, too, thrown overboard - although she is healthy. Killing the terminally ill gives way to killing the inconvenient. It is a horror that inspired J M W Turner's painting (above), and more recently Turner, a poem sequence by David Dabydeen.

But Mintah, marvellously, survives; clambers back on board; hides in a storeroom with the help of the simpleton Simon, who blossoms under her kindness. She becomes a figurehead and sort of resistance heroine for the miserable captives, not only on board the Zong but later, in her eventual life in America and Jamaica. And at the legal hearing which takes up the middle of the book, Simon appears, to everyone's surprise, clutching a book: Mintah's testimony. Among a barely literate crew, it is the slave who speaks.

Mintah's survival and eventual freedom form the last part of the book. She becomes a quasi-mythical figure, a saintly goddess of endurance, and although we applaud her triumphant courage, and the good intentions of her author-creator, some of her pronouncements do seem far-fetched. For instance, while chained to four other slaves on deck during a rainstorm, she has time to resolve in her mind the whole historical problem of slavery: "from seeing the offspring of unions between white men and black women, and the many tribes who trafficked in captive souls for riches, grew her conviction that if the whites had come and settled in Africa and hired Africans to work African soil and grow the very crops they deemed so valuable that they were willing to cast their humanity aside in order to procure them in abundance and gain riches fast, the whole encounter between black and white would have been pleasant and beneficial for all concerned."

This is hardly convincing, as a tone of voice, and it's a problem that besets this otherwise brave and fine-spirited book throughout. Here are the thoughts of Mintah, for instance, when actually in the sea, beaten, half-starved, abused, terrified and now threatened by sharks and almost drowned: "A miniscule impulse instructed her it would be best, under the circumstances, to surrender to those fins." Under the circumstances, she would hardly have had a thought that contained the phrase under the circumstances.

However fiercely we believe that art should have a moral purpose, it is also true that art can be flawed by crusading zeal, if it is not integrated fully enough. This well-made and fascinating book has a story so powerful in itself that a lighter touch might have made a stronger impact.

Above: J M W Turner's `Slaves throw the dead and dying overboard, fearful of the onset of a typhon'