The language of the law


By M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan U Press, 2008. 212 p.

On the route from West Africa to Jamaica In 1791, 250 Africans died at sea aboard the Dutch slave ship Zong. Of these, 150 were thrown overboard to reduce the pressure on limited supplies of water and food. They were considered just part of the cargo.

On the ship’s return to home port in Liverpool, its ship’s owners and their maritime insurers fought over who should pay the cost of the lost “cargo.”

M NourbeSe Philip constructs six long poems using words from the documents produced in the ensuing legal battle, known as Gregson v. Gilbert.

Philip is a poet, writer, and lawyer. Her previous collections of poetry includes “She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks.” Born in Tobago, she now lives in Toronto.

The crux of the dispute was: according to the terms of the insurance contract the owners of the ship Zong would in effect be paid for the loss of the 150 people thrown overboard. That is to say, their deliberate drowning  was not murder;  merely the disposition of property in time of emergency to ensure preservation of the rest of the “cargo.”

Philip used the legal documents as a word store, she writes, “to lock myself into this particular and peculiar discursive landscape in the belief that the story of these African men, women, and children thrown overboard in an attempt to collect insurance monies … is locked in this text.”

Philip presents this story through fragmentation and mutilation of the text. That forces the reader’s eye to track across the page in an attempt to wrest meaning from words gone astray. “I teeter between accepting the irrationality of the event and the fundamental human impulse to make meaning from phenomena around us,” she writes. The disjunctive, almost non-sensical style of the poems demands that the reader “make sense” of an event beyond understanding.


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