Feeding the Ghosts
is a historical novel by Fred D’Aguiar, based on the real events surrounding the slave ship Zong
in 1781. Written in a self-consciously elegiac and poetic style, D’Aguiar makes the incredible suffering endured by his characters almost beautiful while underscoring the brutality and horror of the slave trade—so powerful it lives on in the form of the powerful racism that still pervades much of the Western world.
The book opens with a lyrical description of 131 bodies being thrown into the ocean, where they struggle and then slowly drown and are consumed by the sea. A 132nd body, however, lives on, though it can never abide any open body of water again.
The story then begins on the deck of the Zong
, where Captain Cunningham has asked his First Mate, Kelsal, to assemble the men. The Zong
is a slave ship, and Captain Cunningham details the problems it has endured so far: Seven dead crew-members and the loss of 36 of their cargo—slaves being carried from Africa. The slaves have died from a mysterious disease that has spread to the crew, and fear and panic are building as everyone worries they won’t survive to see land again. Captain Cunningham then suggests a horrifying solution: While their insurers won’t cover the lost slaves if they die naturally during the voyage, they will
cover slaves who are killed in order to protect the rest of the cargo. He suggests, then, that the sick slaves be tossed overboard to their deaths.
Kelsal resists this idea and attempts to argue with Cunningham, but the captain overrides him and issues his order. A minority of the crew is upset and view this as a terrible crime, but the majority believe that slaves are just “stock” and not due any sort of human respect or dignity, and are happy to carry out the order if it means saving their lives—and their profits. Kelsal somewhat reluctantly begins overseeing the murder of sickened slaves. As he does, he thinks he hears his name shouted, but cannot identify the source. After several of the slaves have been tossed overboard in a sickening and brutal fashion, Kelsal identifies the voice calling his name: A female slave in the hold named Mintah. She is brought before Cunningham and tortured, before Kelsal beats her and knocks her unconscious and she is returned to the hold. Kelsal startles when she tells them where she was captured from—a mission where Kelsal himself was nursed back to health by Africans, among them, he realizes, Mintah.
The crew begins identifying sick children to throw overboard and Mintah wonders how she could have been so wrong about Kelsal, a man who seemed more human than the others. When Mintah continues to berate Kelsal for the treatment of the slaves, the First Mate orders her thrown into the ocean with the others, even though she is perfectly healthy. Mintah survives and manages to climb back on board the ship in a moment of nearly-miraculous heroism and hides. As more slaves are thrown overboard, she leads a brief revolt of the slaves.
The rebellion is easily put down, but the event has turned the crew against the Captain’s scheme, and Kelsal is moved to threaten mutiny. The murder of slaves stops. The Zong
puts in at England and Cunningham’s scheme works in the sense that they are paid for the lost “stock,” and Mintah is sold off along with the other slaves. But charges are brought against the crew for the illegal dumping of the cargo (since slaves are not considered people, this is not murder, but rather fraud), and a trial is held. The all-white court listens to evidence and is about to exonerate Cunningham and the crew of all wrongdoing when a journal kept by none other than Mintah is produced detailing the events on board. The court still declares Cunningham and the crew innocent.
The last portion of the book is in Mintah’s voice as she details her life after the horrors of the Zong
. Sold into slavery, she manages to purchase her freedom and smuggle her journal to the lawyers for the insurance company to use against Cunningham. She then becomes involved with the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape captivity. The epilogue notes that the ghosts of the Zong
remain with us, everywhere.
D'Aguiar layers his story with symbolism, chiefly involving the sea and wood, physical movement such as dancing, and the nature of memory. The story itself, based on true events, is a terrifying indictment not just of the business of slavery but of the inhuman treatment that slaves endured at the hands of men like Cunningham, who deliberately murdered and brutalized “stock” in the pursuit of profits, as well as men like Kelsal and the crew who obeyed orders and allowed such atrocities to occur. His choice to let Mintah have the last word in the novel is symbolic of the way hope and freedom has somehow survived such times and events.