Book review / Cargo of despair

Feeding the Ghosts by Fred D'Aguiar, Chatto & Windus, pounds 14.99

Disease is running riot on the slave ship Zong as it plies the middle passage between West Africa and Jamaica. The captain decides to protect his healthy cargo by slinging overboard the infected "pieces". In this way he plans to halt the disease, save rations and preserve a profitable ratio of the ship's "holdings".

He is confident he will recover the value of his losses from the insurers back in London. He orders his crew to throw overboard 132 pieces of "stock" - men, women and children plucked out of the hold and marked as strokes in his meticulous register before being namelessly dropped into the sea and the void of history.

One of the slaves, Mintah - condemned to death for insolence rather than infirmity - manages to climb back on board. With the help of the cook's assistant she not only stays alive to lead an abortive rebellion, but finds pen and paper and writes a journal of these dreadful events.

This document is produced in court when the suit for compensation is heard. Among other things, it reveals that one of the allegedly sick children had to be chased round the deck before she was caught and dumped in the waves. "Where is the necessity in the decision to dispose of her?" asks the lawyer for the insurers.

Fred D'Aguiar's third novel is derived from a true case, given much uncomfortable publicity by Granville Sharp, first chairman of the Quaker society for the abolition of slavery. D'Aguiar convincingly conjures up the appalling conditions in which newly captured slaves were imprisoned during their voyage to the West Indies. None of the white characters uses the word "slaves"; they are invariably referred to as "stock". D'Aguiar further reinforces their loss of individuality by differentiating only Mintah.

The others are never more than anonymous pairs of eyes staring out of the fetid darkness in the hold. Their atrocious situation is mostly suggested by means of the crewmen's disgust at having to go below. There is a telling moment, as forceful as any account of rape or beating, when the first mate's lamp is nearly extinguished by lack of oxygen in the women's section. This is truly imaginative historical fiction.

The first part of the novel is more concerned with the slavers than with the slaves. It seems to be asking the age-old question: how can humans do this to each other? The white men are individualised, but only in so far as they vary in their reactions to the captain's orders. Some grumble a little, but all obey in the end.

The only man who shows compassion is the assistant cook, and he is a simpleton. The very fact that the slave trade flourished for so many years proves that our l8th-century ancestors, like those responsible for the Holocaust, behaved as D'Aguiar suggests: with unconcerned cruelty. Perhaps such people do not deserve deeper inspection. On the other hand, to dismiss them as sadists and buffoons is surely a mistake.

D'Aguiar depicts the judge in the insurance case, Lord Mansfield, as a man fonder of lunch than of justice who never recognises the barbarity of the case. The fact that this cartoon is unrepresentative of the historical Lord Mansfield does not matter, but what makes slavery and other atrocities the harder to understand is that they are not committed only by brutes, but by intelligent and cultivated people as well. Their mentality does therefore need to be explained.

The humanity of Mintah is set against the men's callousness, and if she occasionally seems too heroic and literary to be entirely credible, she is nonetheless a moving creation. D'Aguiar invests her with a poetic belief in herself as a kind of wood, whose grain will grow round the terrible knot of the voyage, allowing her to survive, her soul intact. The wood of her being is contrasted with the rapacity and indifference of the sea. And, his eloquence in full flight, D'Aguiar implies that there is always a Zong at sea somewhere.

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