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Revisiting Slave Narratives I

Judith Misrahi-Barak

The anglophone Caribbean

“The Sea is Slavery “: Salvation in Feeding the Ghosts

Ferentz Lafargue


My objective in this paper is to examine the dynamics of the “condition of extremity” that author Fred D’Aguiar establishes in his novel, Feeding the Ghosts. The “condition of extremity” is a concept developed by Terrence Des Pres in his essay, “The Survivor in Fiction,” to describe a character who is placed in a position where “there is no escape, no place to go except the grave” (Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). Using Des Pres’s concept, I will conduct a close reading of the actions of the following characters in the novel; Captain Cunningham, First Mate Kelsal, and Mintah, the slave woman who climbs back aboard the ship after being thrown off. The purpose of this examination is to argue that by establishing a “condition of extremity” for both the slaves and their captors, D’Aguiar succeeds in displaying how death and desperation has aligned the fates of both of these groups. In addition, he is also refashioning the architecture of the Slave Narrative by drafting the conflict between death and survival as its dramatic gateway instead of the tension between slavery and freedom.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Feeding the Ghosts (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1997) is D’Aguiar’s second venture into t (...)
  • 2 According to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, The Zong set sail from Liverpool in 1781 and m (...)
  • 3 While the infirm slaves were cast overboard historian James Walvin shrewdly points out that “No suc (...)
  • 4 The Zong Case, actually Gregson vs. Gilbert as in the ship-owners versus the underwriters, immediat (...)

1Fred D’Aguiar’s novel, Feeding the Ghosts1, is a fictional account of the massacre that occurred aboard the slave-ship the Zong in 1781.2 While en route from the Gold Coast of Africa to the island of Jamaica, the Zong’s captain, Luke Collingwood, ordered his men to throw one-hundred and thirty-two slaves overboard. These murders were carried out over the course of three days. According to records of the case, among the reasons that Collingwood cites for sanctioning this heinous act is that he feared the already sick slaves would infect the other slaves aboard the Zong. This illness also cost Collingwood seven of the seventeen sailors with whom he left port and he sought to take this course of action in order to protect against further losses amongst the crew.3 Collingwood also claimed that the Zong would possibly run out of drinking water before reaching Jamaica.4

  • 5 Frias, Maria, “Building Bridges Back to the Past: An Interview with Fred D’Aguiar.” Callaloo Vol. 2 (...)

2 Feeding the Ghosts, then, is akin to Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Tituba narratives, Tituba of Salem Village and Moi Tituba, Sorciere Noire de Salem, by Anne Petry and Maryse Condé respectively, in that they are all grounded in a real life occurrence. Another similarity between Feeding the Ghosts, Beloved and the Tituba narratives is that each text is anchored by a female protagonist and like the other authors D’Aguiar admits to consciously seeking to explicate a female experience, “Mintah is a natural progression from my earlier writing about women... In addition, I was interested in the question ‘if the black man is silenced in history, what is the nature of the censure of black women?’”.5 Like Morrison, Petry and Condé with the trials that concern their novels, D’Aguiar is invested in bringing to the fore aspects marginalized in previous accounts of the Zong massacre and is acutely aware of his place and purpose within this canon of writers:

Every previous fiction and slave narrative adds to my understanding of black history and my place in that history. And every previous text opens new seams of possibility for exploration. Stories beget stories. The more stories there are the more stories there has to be. (Frias, 419)

  • 6 Feeding the Ghosts, 3.

3For D’Aguiar then Feeding the Ghosts is not just another tale, but it is a historical document and toward that end he appears to embed his novel with a thesis. Announced in the first line of the novel’s prologue, what I would consider the thesis of Feeding the Ghosts, is, “the sea is slavery”.6

  • 7 Baucom, Ian, “Specters of the Atlantic. (Atlantic Genealogies) (Critical Essay)” The South Atlantic (...)

4By putting this statement in the prologue D’Aguiar wants the reader to know from the beginning that this novel is premised on the notion that the sea itself is slavery. Partly due to the relationship formed between Mintah and the cook’s assistant, Simon, there exists a sense that a resolution between the slaves and their captors, as well as the sea and land, is possible towards the end of the novel. However, this resolution is never actually consummated. One reason for why this resolution is not actualized in the novel is that D’Aguiar is struggling to move the narrative beyond the struggle between the sea and the land. He appears to be interested in the narrative of the more elusive struggle between the sea and history. D’Aguiar’s attempts at grasping the strands of this struggle begins with that first line of the prologue, which I contend is his attempt towards a dialogue with Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s famous poem, “The Sea is History,” from which D’Aguiar extracts one of the novel’s epigraphs. Scholar, Ian Baucom has discussed the relationship between these two texts, and posits that both are part of the pantheon of Atlantic texts that make allusions to the Zong massacre7. Baucom is only able to infer that Walcott is referring to the Zong in this poem since it is not explicitly mentioned in “The Sea is History.” I would like to hone in on another word missing from Walcott’s poem that is central to D’Aguiar’s project in Feeding the Ghosts, slavery.

5If one reads aloud the titles of the two most memorable lines from each text, “the sea is history” and “the sea is slavery” one cannot help but notice that they occupy a similar sonic space. D’Aguiar appears to be striving to articulate a very specific vision of the sea and moment of history, both of which are encapsulated and haunted by the reality of slavery. For D’Aguiar, the sea is not merely history, it is slavery, and what is left to discover is whether freedom and life can also emerge from this space. He is rejecting the impulse to have the sea serve as a metaphor for life and history, while history still remains as the lone marker of reality. The never-ending accumulation of facts and artifacts which symbolize history can be found in the bottomless stomach of the sea, particularly in light of the massacres attributed to the Atlantic Slave Trade:

Over three days 131 such bodies, no, 132, are flung at this sea.
Each lands with a sound that the sea absorbs and silences. Each opens a wound in the sea that heals over each body without the evidence of a scar. (3)

  • 8 Walcott, Derek, “The Sea is History”, The Collected Poems: 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Gi (...)

6The 132 bodies thrown overboard are the clearest indicators of the value of Africans in the novel. The decimation and interconnected dehumanization of African bodies is the most pernicious element of slavery. Unlike Walcott, D’Aguiar is not relying on rhetorical statements: “Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs? Where is your tribal memory?” to address the consumption and disposal of African bodies8. What D’Aguiar has left to discover is whether freedom and life can also be salvaged. D’Aguiar has found his subject in the sea, and it is one of the 132 slaves cast overboard on the Zong. His subject was lost in neither history nor the sea, in fact it was found in history. The subject of D’Aguiar’s narrative was taken away and cast overboard in the name of slavery, and then rescued at sea by D’Aguiar in the murky waters of J.M.W. Turner’s canvas, “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying -Typhoon Coming On.”

7Inspired by the Zong Massacre itself, Turner’s painting, which was subsequently renamed “The Slave Ship” figures into the composition of Feeding the Ghosts. The limb sticking out of the water in the lower right corner of the painting appears to be part of what is driving D’Aguiar’s vision of one of the discarded Africans coming back aboard the ship. In addition, the moment frozen in this portrait is the historical moment of slavery, particularly one of the most glaring atrocities committed during and which serves to define its terrorizing spectre. D’Aguiar’s dialogue with Turner’s painting leads one to suggest that Feeding the Ghosts emerges as an attempt to remake and reengage this moment and restore its fluidity. D’Aguiar is announcing how the narrative time of slavery does not pass, but instead is an accumulating continuum, or as he asserts: “Remember we are talking about slavery, a 400 year old institution. How many books are enough?” (Frias, 419). The most glaring symbol of this accumulation in Feeding the Ghosts is the procession of slaves being thrown overboard. It also accumulates in the form of the lives that continue to be haunted, arrested, and impressed upon by the experiential reality of slavery. Therefore, Feeding the Ghosts can be read as an interrogation of how this accumulation “deposits its strange weight upon the minds of the living” (Baucom, 80).

  • 9 “Spectres of the Atlantic”, 71.
  • 10 The character Kelsal is loosely based on the real life first-mate of The Zong John Kelsal. Like his (...)

8In calling for an interrogation of the value of the survivor figure, Ian Baucom’s essay, “Spectres of the Atlantic” seeks to reassess the “exceptionality” of living on.9 In addition, Baucom’s exploration of justice in that essay relates well to how sociologist Orlando Patterson views a Christian understanding of justification permeates throughout discourses of slavery. Justification is one of the three key elements of Pauline Christianity identified by Patterson in his text Slavery and Social Death that I intend to use as anchors for my readings of the novel’s three main characters, Captain Cunningham, Kelsal and Mintah. The other two motifs of Pauline Christianity that will factor into this discussion are redemption and reconciliation. The precarious nature of life on D’Aguiar’s Zong makes it an ideal setting to pose the question: what does it mean to be a survivor? Another question that arises as D’Aguiar elicits the need and obligation to survive in the following characters; Mintah, Captain Cunningham, first-mate Kelsal10, and the cook’s helper, Simon: what is at stake for each character as he or she attempts to engender his or her survival?

9Justification, redemption and reconciliation can also be connected to the structure of the novel, which is delivered in three parts with a prologue and an epilogue as its bookends. The narrative voice of Feeding the Ghosts alternates from an omniscient narrator to the first-person perspective of Cunningham, Kelsal and Mintah. The narrative’s plot is developed non-chronologically as multiple flashbacks are inserted to untangle the matted stories of the characters and base time in Feeding the Ghosts is the three days at sea during which the slaves are being thrown overboard. These three days at sea are the source for understanding what exactly is being survived. In order to explicate the dynamics of life aboard the Zong as imagined by D’Aguiar in Feeding the Ghosts Terrence Des Pres’ The Survivor in Fiction: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps will be consulted. Des Pres’ “condition of extremity” is a viable starting point for grasping the importance of the plague in the novel, and for the emergence of a survivor figure.

  • 11 Des Pres, Terence, The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Pr (...)

10Life aboard the Zong illustrates what Des Pres has referred to as the “machinery of civilization,” the elements which obscure the fundamental imperative that “survival of the body and its well-being take priority over everything else” and instead presupposes “that life is justified only by things which negate it.”11 Aboard the Zong, one’s life is justified by one’s ability to serve, it is the raison d’être. There are two types of servants on the ship, the sailors, who for the most part through their own volition are serving the captain and the interests of the underwriters, as well as their own financial prospects. Then there are the slaves, who are involuntarily being transported to serve their eventual masters. By attending to the depiction of the sailors one can argue that service is justifiable, and is challenged by the presence of the slaves which suggests that redemption is also in order. The mere presence of the slaves is forcing everyone on the ship to reappraise the value of service. The spreading plague is also a potentially reconciliatory factor in the novel.

11The mushrooming of the plague aboard the ship and the resulting deaths during the Zong’s voyage fuses a formidable connection between the fates of the crew and their captives:

One after another the crew fell in with the vomiting and diarrhea of the slaves, robbing the ship of hands that were vitally needed and the remaining crew of its will, souring the mission’s hitherto delicious promise of wealth for all involved. (12)

  • 12 A more elaborate discussion of the concept of extremity appears in the first chapter on Kindred by (...)

12As the captives begin falling ill, so do the crewmen. The “vomiting and diarrhea of the slaves” can be read as a convulsive metaphor for the ensuing act of throwing the slaves overboard. The narrator’s juxtaposition of the literal and the metaphorical in this passage speaks to the catastrophe that has taken hold of every body and is challenging the unremitting parable of survival that was “the mission’s hitherto delicious promise of wealth for all involved.” The plague that threatens the sailors and their captives function as what Terrence Des Pres has termed the “first condition of extremity” in Feeding the Ghosts.12 According to Des Pres, “the first condition of extremity is that there is no escape, no place to go, except the grave. It is like a city under siege”. (7) Des Pres develops this concept in his analysis of Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, and like the town of Oran in Camus’ text, the Zong in Feeding the Ghosts is rendered as a “city under siege.” Des Pres also goes on to declare that in Camus’ novels, “survival is represented as an action with a political outcome. Here the survivor is a protagonist in the classic sense, for by staying alive he becomes an effective agent in the fight against evil and injustice” (Des Pres, 7).

13As the reader eventually discovers, it is Kelsal, and not the slave Mintah, who is the original wounded figure in this narrative. It is also through the story of Kelsal’s recovery that one realizes that Kelsal and Mintah have a connection that pre-dates their encounter on the Zong. Their prior relationship runs against the currents of the prevailing order on the ship that reads sickness as a precursor to death. On the ship Kelsal and Mintah’s actions are governed by the thunderous clouds of aggression and death: the death-ordering captain and the dying sailors and slaves. However, while they are at the Dutch mission on the Gold Coast it is the regenerative possibilities of love and life, nursing and patience that unite them.

14 The narrator’s account of Kelsal’s tenure at the mission reveals a lecherous and lethargic man barely able to discipline himself. Such a portrayal is rather problematic because the reader already knows that Kelsal is eventually entrusted with the lives of other individuals:

He wore his misery as if it weighed as much as an elephant. He dragged his feet everywhere. And he complained about everything. The sun, the nature of the work assigned to him, the food, water, the manner of his confinement. Everything. When his time was up everyone was glad to see him released and gone. (195)

15In the above passage Mintah takes over as narrator and reveals that long before the miseries of the Zong, Kelsal was already a sullen character. The melancholy that at first seemed to be a result of this traumatic voyage is now proven to be innate to his character. In spite of its subjectivity, Mintah’s recount of Kelsal’s behavior at the fort is still instructive because it unmasks his lethargy and his penchant for being a depressing influence on others. Kelsal is presented as being petulant and lacking a succinct understanding of what action is needed to change his situation. The most fascinating element of Mintah’s appraisal of Kelsal is how clearly she captures how distraught he was being on land, “And he complained about everything. The sun, the nature of the work assigned to him, the food, water, the manner of his confinement. Everything.” The unease that characterized Kelsal’s life on land is mirrored by Mintah’s frustrations with being at sea: “A life on water was no life to live... a life in abeyance, until land presented itself and enabled that life resume.” (61) Mintah and Kelsal’s responses support a dichotomy that is developing throughout the novel. For the sailors, life on land is associated with “the profane,” instead of freedom as mentioned earlier. For the slaves, the sea is immeasurably slavery and is devoid of the redemptive qualities that attract Kelsal and the other sailors.

16The fact that Mintah is brought in to relieve the narrator in this instance is itself significant because it reinforces the latent connection between her and Kelsal that haunts them throughout the novel. At the center of their conflict is that throughout Feeding the Ghosts the relationship between Mintah and Kelsal is marked by one constant, Kelsal’s freedom:

He was always free to leave, but not before he had worked for the fort and repaid a little of the time everyone had devoted to him when he was ill and had to be nursed. The morning his yellow fever subsided, or so he thought, he ran off. Two days later he was found at the perimeter of the grounds crawling on his hands and knees and begging for water and a shoulder to lean on. This second time he was sick for even longer and delirious... He opened his eyes and did not know his name or where he was on earth. I had to teach him. “Kelsal!” I said, “you are Kelsal.” (195)

17Mintah and Kelsal’s previous connection is well illustrated here. Kelsal’s petulance is again exhibited as he runs away before fully regaining his health and must be returned to the mission after immediately falling ill again. Mintah’s behavior is as much nurturing as it is nursing. Like a mother for a child she is responsible for acquainting Kelsal with his environment: “I had to teach him. ‘Kelsal! ’ I said, ‘you are Kelsal.’” She is endowed with a sense of entitlement and authority towards Kelsal.

18This passage is important because it helps explain the anxiety that strikes Kelsal when Mintah calls his name when they are on the Zong. When Mintah calls out his name “Kelsal!” (28), it is a jarring reminder to Kelsal of his time at the fort and threatens to expose his past to the other sailors. Her ability to speak English is itself startling, but the fact that she knows Kelsal’s name and the authority with which she exclaims it, “Kelsal!”, goes against the rules of command that govern communication amongst the sailors on the Zong. Hearing his name being summoned from the hold is pulling Kelsal back into a past that he is trying to forget: “He wondered about the location of the mission but, without quite knowing why, he was reluctant to display an inordinate interest in her in the presence of so many of the crew.” (29) Like the other sailors on the Zong, one of Kelsal’s objectives on this journey is to refashion his identity and Mintah’s fight to stay alive is inextricably linked to Kelsal’s ability become a new man. For Kelsal, either disregarding or silencing, if not murdering Mintah, potentially ensures his break from his past and allows him to make a new life on the ship. Paying too much attention to Mintah places Kelsal’s life in danger for as the reader will learn, for the first-mate, the past is the plague steadily snaking its way back into his life.

19Since Mintah helped nurture Kelsal back to health and taught him his name she serves as the closest symbol to a maternal figure for Kelsal. If he were to acknowledge such an intimate connection to Mintah, Kelsal risks proving Cunningham correct in his earlier proclamation that Kelsal’s proximity to the stock impacts his decision-making. Cunningham also factors in here because it was Cunningham’s emergence from his cabin, and then Mintah’s calling out from the hold, that impedes Kelsal’s refashioning of his identity. Both arrivals from the interior spaces of the ship imply that in addition to transporting persons and cargo, the Zong is also carrying secrets.

20 Mintah proceeds to further transgress the boundaries of her station on the ship with her flippant response when Kelsal asks her why she did not tell the crew that she could speak English; “What would you have done with me? Set me free?” (28) Here Mintah is unearthing their shared past to remind Kelsal of the unwritten contract that he is violating by being an agent for slavery, after all even if it was not evident to him, during their time together on the mission Kelsal was always free. In addition, this interrogation reveals how Kelsal’s new position is being inscribed upon Mintah’s bondage. Mintah’s bondage emerges as the canvas for Kelsal to illustrate his position as a master figure aboard the Zong and erase the visions of his earlier emasculation by Cunningham from the mind’s of the other sailors:

He [Kelsal] pushed Mintah to the ground and asked the crew to restrain her. The boatswain knelt before her and began to unbuckle his trousers. Kelsal pushed him away from her so hard that the man fell on his side and looked up at Kelsal astonished. Rain on the deck pooled red between Mintah’s thighs. Kelsal saw her menstrual blood. The boatswain cursed and stood up.
Disappointment marked his face. There would be another time, he consoled himself... The men pulled Mintah on to her stomach and kneeled on her arms and held her splayed ankles. Kelsal kicked the whip that he had dropped at his feet further away and grabbed his club. He began to beat Mintah on her shoulders. She screamed. (33)

21In spite of the fact that Kelsal does not rape Mintah in this scene, the narrator makes it clear that she has not escaped the threat of sexual violence through this ominous declaration by the boatswain’s that “there would be another time.” Unlike in the post-traumatic period where the survivor is able to assert “Never Again,” in the moment of terror, it is the oppressor who finds consolation in the future.

22This scene is similar to the scene in Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred where the character Rufus has the novel’s protagonist, Dana beaten. Dana’s beating in Kindred is done to impress upon her that Rufus is not afraid to impose the line between slave and master that in many other instances of their relationship appears to be blurred. Dana makes a point of alerting the reader to the fact that her beating is not just the Weylin’s response to her trying to run away, but also a reflection of the intensity of the struggle that she puts forward when she is recaptured:

  • 13 Butler, Octavia, Kindred (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988): 176.

What I acted like was a wild woman. If I’d had my knife, I would surely have killed someone. As it was, I managed to leave scratches and bruises on Rufus, his father, and Edwards who was called over to help. I was totally beyond reasoning. I had never in my life wanted so desperately to kill another human being...
He beat me until I swung back and forth by my wrists half-crazy with pain... He beat me until I tried to make myself believe he was going to kill me... I was not aware of Rufus untying me, carrying me out of the barn and into Carrie’s and Nigel’s cabin. I was not aware of him directing Alice and Carrie to was and care for me as I had cared for Alice.13

23Throughout Kindred Dana can be said to represent Rufus’s maternal figure, therefore his kindness at the end of this scene is in line with his behavior throughout the novel, even if it is precipitated by an act of violence. The dichotomy between Rufus as the malicious figure standing idly by as his father whips Dana and the benevolent character taking her to be nursed back to health is part and parcel of the mystery that Dana is trying to solve. This scene of the child playing a role in exacting violence on the mother is a recurring theme in contemporary fiction of slavery. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the most obvious example, but the actions of Rufus and Kelsal in Kindred and Feeding the Ghosts, respectively, not to mention the actions of the Parris children in the Tituba narratives, are also representations of this motif.

24Unlike Kelsal, Rufus does not administer the beating himself because his relationship with Dana could not bear such a transgression. Kelsal cannot conceive of any boundaries on his ability to enact his will upon Mintah and he becomes so engrossed in beating her that he is oblivious to the effect that his behavior has on the other sailors:

The faces of the men around him, including his trustworthy second mate’s, appeared to take little or no pleasure in the exercise. The men on either side of her restrained her effectively, but looked elsewhere and flinched with each blow as if a relative of theirs were the object of his attentions. (34)

25The faces that earlier were in synch with Kelsal have now become disjointed. This attack on Mintah is gradually having the impact on the sailors that Cunningham’s earlier attack on Kelsal could not achieve, which is fracturing their relationship with the first-mate. As the narrator asserts each blow to Mintah appears to be a blow to the other sailors. By having the other sailors witness and assist in his attack on Mintah Kelsal is dragging them through the trapdoors of his past, therefore the sailors feel Mintah’s pain as if it were their own because by being forced to relive Kelsal’s connection with Mintah they are living their pain. They are reliving a period of being separated from the sea and being slaves to land.

26The above scene also speaks to how Kelsal is losing his crew and for D’Aguiar the trans-Atlantic slave trade is defined by loss, the loss of cultures, consciousness, and faith and most importantly, life. The trauma of this loss is the real drama of Feeding the Ghosts, however, this loss also springs forth possibilities of beginnings and I would like to propose that Mintah’s story begins, not ends, with the line, “Mintah was gone.” Being thrown over the side of the Zong gives Mintah the opportunity to begin anew, “to escape history,” and therefore, as she is going away she is also returning.


1 Feeding the Ghosts (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1997) is D’Aguiar’s second venture into the realm of contemporary fiction of slavery. His first was the nineteen-ninety four novel The Longest Memory.

2 According to the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, The Zong set sail from Liverpool in 1781 and made slave purchases at Cape Coast Castle; Anamabu, Adja and Agga; The Gold Coast and disembarked at Black River, Jamaica in 1782. It is believed that 132 slaves were thrown overboard during this voyage and an additional seven crewmembers died due to the spread of an infection throughout the ship. From the beginning the events on The Zong have been documented in African Diasporic cultural imagination figuring in the works of such notable figures as Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Mallord William Turner, and more recently the poet David Dabydeen.

3 While the infirm slaves were cast overboard historian James Walvin shrewdly points out that “No such proposal was made to put and end to the suffering of sick crewmen.” Walvin, James. Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery (London: Harper Collins, 1992).

4 The Zong Case, actually Gregson vs. Gilbert as in the ship-owners versus the underwriters, immediately became well-known because of the involvement of some such prominent eighteenth-century figures as Olaudah Equiano, Lord William Murray Mansfield and Granville Sharp. Equiano the former African slave who would write his memoir some six years later brought the case to anti-slavery activist, Sharp and asked him to help in bringing a case against the sailors. Sharp organized his friends and petitioned for a retrial and this case was brought in front of Mansfield who a decade earlier issued the decision in the James Somerset case that outlawed the capture and selling of run-away Africans back into slavery. See Hoare, Prince, The Memoirs of Granville Sharp. London: Henry Colburn, 1828; and Walvin, James, The Life and Times of Olaudah Equiano, 1745-1797 (London: Cassell, 1998).

5 Frias, Maria, “Building Bridges Back to the Past: An Interview with Fred D’Aguiar.” Callaloo Vol. 25 (Spring 2002): 418-25; 422.

6 Feeding the Ghosts, 3.

7 Baucom, Ian, “Specters of the Atlantic. (Atlantic Genealogies) (Critical Essay)” The South Atlantic Quarterly, (Winter 2001): 61-82; 61.

8 Walcott, Derek, “The Sea is History”, The Collected Poems: 1948-1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986): 364.

9 “Spectres of the Atlantic”, 71.

10 The character Kelsal is loosely based on the real life first-mate of The Zong John Kelsal. Like his character in the text the real-life Kelsal is believed to have initially objected to the captains orders. According to Prince Hoare, Kelsal testified “there was no present want of water to justify such a measure” (Hoare, xxvii).

11 Des Pres, Terence, The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976): 5.

12 A more elaborate discussion of the concept of extremity appears in the first chapter on Kindred by Octavia Butler. Terrence Des Pres defines “existence in extremity” as “a move beyond despair and self-pity to that fierce determination which survivors call up in themselves. To come through; to keep a living soul in a living body.” The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976): 7.

13 Butler, Octavia, Kindred (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988): 176.


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