Friday, May 9, 2014

Drowning Black Slaves for the Insurance Money: The Whitewashed History of the Zong Massacre and the New Movie 'Belle'

I am going to see the new movie, The Retrieval later today. I do so with some anxiety and trepidation as the movie tells the tale of a young black teenager who is used as bait by white slave hunters in order to capture free and runaway African-Americans during the Civil War.

I am less concerned about the historical veracity of such a tale than with the question of "why release this movie now?" And will The Retrieval be used as a weapon by those (racist) white Americans (and others) who scream "they did it to themselves!" when the crime against humanity that was centuries of white on black slavery and murder in the New World is made a topic of private or public conversation?

Film is a space where the collective subconscious negotiates its anxieties, hopes, dreams, and fears. Film is a projection, quite literally, of a society making sense of itself. Most important, film is about the present not the past.

Belle is also opening today. It is a beautiful period drama where it would appear that love conquers all, as the "mixed race" black child of a white nobleman tries to navigate her liminal racial existence in a Jane Austen-like period drama. Its trailer was shown before 12 Years a Slave. During my screening, the audience smiled, muttering in more than a low whisper that "they have to see Belle, it looks so wonderful and heartwarming".

12 Years a Slave was cinematic medicine; the trailer for Belle was a nice, light, tasty, treat. Americans love their junk food.

Written by Misan Sagay, this British historical drama is getting the "inspiring true story" treatment, though the inspiring parts aren't true and the true parts aren't inspiring. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the illegitimate child of an African woman and a white captain in the Royal Navy; deposited at the estate of her uncle, the esteemed jurist William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, she grew to young adulthood in social limbo, too low to dine with the family but too high to dine with the servants. Sagay turns her plight into a Jane Austen-style romance involving both sincere and scheming suitors, which allows the writer to unpack the social attitudes of the time. Her invented narrative works much better than the ensuing legal drama based on the 1781 Zong massacre, in which British slave traders tossed their sick slaves overboard; Murray ruled on the case as lord chief justice, and though the verdict is presented here as a blow against slavery, it was really a more mundane question of insurance law.
Sometimes, the truth does manage to assert itself.

The global slave trade gave birth to innovations in fields such as insurance, shipping, finance, medicine, engineering, and banking. The movement of millions of people through the Middle Passage, the human logs for the fires that created consumerism and global capitalism, was instrumental in making the modern world. 

Black human property was treated as objects, without apology or excuse-making by White government and society.

The website Understanding Slavery, offers the following details on the Zong affair:
Like other cargoes, the Africans on the Zong were insured by the ship's owners: each had a price on their head. It was also an accepted convention of English maritime insurance that, under certain conditions, compensation would be paid for dead Africans. Of those killed in the course of a shipboard insurrection (of which there were many) or who died of wounds, and even those thrown overboard during the crushing of a rebellion, each would have their value returned to the ship's owners by the underwriters.

This had been standard practice long before the Zong incident. Someone on board the Zong, moreover, clearly knew that maritime insurance allowed for such claims to be made. However, up to 1783, no one as far as is known had claimed for the death of Africans deliberately killed in order to make an insurance claim...

Almost as surprising was the decision by the Liverpool merchants – the William Gregson syndicate, two of whom had been mayor of Liverpool – to sue for their money in the first case. They were perfectly happy to go to court, with all the inevitable publicity, and openly admit that their crew had killed 132 Africans.

When the case was heard before Chief Lord Justice Mansfield, eminent counsel, notably the solicitor general John Lee argued vigorously that the killings were not a matter of murder or morality but solely involved a question of property and insurance: 
What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard. 
However, even Lord Mansfield, generally sympathetic to the slaving lobby, felt uncertain about this line of reasoning. 
At one level, the Zong case was an extension of existing legal and commercial practice. Africans were bought and sold as property, and they were insured as property. If killed by the ship's crew in self-defence, their value was recoverable – as property. The Gregson syndicate went to court with this in mind: they were Liverpool slave traders who handled Africans as commodities – and they wanted their money back...

Yet the deliberate killings of Africans during voyages of slave ships did not end following the Zong. Indeed they actually increased in the early 19th century: When, following abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Royal Navy vessels chased suspected illegal slave ships, the slavers' crews were often prepared to throw Africans overboard rather than be caught with slaves on board and have the vessels impounded.
The racial tyranny of white on black chattel slavery does not have to be exaggerated or turned into a bogeyman myth in order to force moral objection or disgust. The matter of fact, day-to-day, quotidian nature of white supremacy is wicked--and this wickedness (and the struggle against it) shaped American democracy and Western society's past and present. Moreover, the routine evil of white supremacy under the slave regime--and then Jim and Jane Crow in the United States--is, to my eyes, its most disturbing aspect.

Simon Legree, the KKK or snarling slavers and overseers are easy to conjure up as examples of white supremacy: their evil is obvious. The accountant for the plantation, a respectable businessman who made money on the slave trade, or the young couple who received a slave (or two) as a wedding gift is evidence of moral rot on a grand scale. They are not evil outliers. Rather, they are "regular people" doing what "normal people" did in a slave society.

That foundational evil is inconvenient and denied--American exceptionalism views it as a mere inconvenience except when it can be truncated and spun in such a way as to elevate the greatness and virtue of the (white) American people.

[For example, the deflections that are used to deny the fact of white racism and the continuing impact of slavery on black Americans in the present by conservatives almost inevitably end with some reference to how white people fought a Civil War to end the peculiar institution. Consequently, black people should shut up, be grateful, and stop complaining so much].

The white racial frame shifts reality, rewrites history, and legitimates a type of white situationism where the latter is made into a universal truth and a unifying perspective, as opposed to one point of view that is often wrong, distorted, and based on a series of interdependent lies.

White supremacy does not involve lying only to black and brown people about a deficit in the latter groups' intelligence, self-worth, and humanity. White supremacy also lies to white people, both overtly and covertly, about their inherent "normality", and thus de facto superiority, over people of color.

In responding to the white participants in her "brown eyes blue eyes" experiments who become upset at being treated in a "mean" way, anti-racist activist Jane Elliot famously said that white racism is everywhere, black and brown people can't even go outside or turn on the TV without having to confront it...complaining white people who can't tolerate being "black" for ten minutes need to grow up.

Belle is the white racism of the Hollywood lie, where inconvenient truths are ignored in order to tell a fanciful, indulgent story of love across the color line.

In post civil rights America, one of the biggest lies of Whiteness is the story of interracial reconciliation because it lets white folks off of the hook because they read themselves into the text as heroic saviors, otherwise decent bystanders to history, or where they, as "good" people, find validation in being juxtaposed against the racist white villains offered up as easy sacrifices on the post civil rights era alter of colorblindness and "diversity".

Real justice involves pain and material sacrifice. Hugs and nice words and cinematic melodrama do none of that necessary work. White fantasies tell white lies to white folks and people of color too: life is easier that way. The real world, the empirical fact of how race still over determines life chances in American society, is nurtured by such trite cinematic fantasies.


galleymac said...

Simply addressing the film "Belle" -- I have to say I'm glad to see it. It's not a Hollywood movie for one -- England's worst abuses did not occur within England (no, that's not a compliment either, but it does speak to the fact that the African American experience cannot stand in for the experience of the entire African Diaspora) and it does buck the trend of only showing black women on screen as objects of passive suffering and either recipients of abuse or dispensers of sass and homilys. What we know about Dido Belle is not very much, but she appears in commissioned portraits of the family alongside her legitimate white cousin, there are records of her being married in a church (a big deal at the time for an illegitimate child, never mind a half black-one), records of her children -- all legitimate, no forced courtesanship or high-class mistress role for her -- being christened, also in church (same thing) and records of her receiving the same amount of inheritance money from her white relatives as would have been normal for a white illegitimate child. Also, no attempts at erasing or denying these records, when such erasure happened with some regularity in nearby Spain. For the time period, her life did indeed include some fairly fairy-tale-esque triumphs, and I see the offer of an alternative narrative for a black woman, an alternative to tears, whippings, sexual coercion, domestic abuse and all the other things the American psyche in particular no longer views as something that happened to us but as inherent to our existence. It is not inherent to our existence, it was and is artificially inflicted, and people should be reminded of that from time to time.

galleymac said...

Interview with the director:

Myshkin the Idiot said...

The Retrieval looks captivatingly brutal. How white folks perform such mental hallucinogenics to render invisible the role white people played in slave trade is baffling. Ignorance is potent in neo-Confederate America.

"Europeans were just sailing by and Africans just gave them slaves." seriously, people say this as if it is completely true (this is a verbatim quote). You tell them the truth, it doesn't matter.

Where I first read about the Zong Massacre:

"if the slaves died on land or on board the Zong, he would receive no money for them. However, if they drowned, an insurance claim could be made for each at a value of £30 per person. On 29th November the crew discussed the plan and by the end of the day, over 50 women and children had been chained and thrown into the sea to drown. A few days later more slaves were murdered in the same manner, with 142 cast into the ocean by the time the ship reached Jamaica.

"The owners of the ship made a claim for lost cargo against their insurance and, when it was refused, took the underwriters to court. The case hinged on the matter of whether the slaves were killed to save the rest from dehydration or whether they were murdered simply for the insurance money.

"The jury found in favour of the Zong's owners and the insurers were ordered to pay up.

"Outraged that the trial should be over money and not murder, abolitionist Granville Sharp attempted to have the crew prosecuted for the massacre. His efforts were rebuffed by the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield..."

chauncey devega said...

I am all for showing how diverse Europe was/is. But I am not for willful misrepresentations of history and fact. Perhaps, you have more faith in the masses than I do, but you can't talk rocket science with a wino as the saying goes...and on these issues we are still in 1st grade as a country and trying to offer up a postdoc quality education usually goes wrong.

Part of the power of the white racial frame and white supremacy is that movies like Belle will be antidotes and deflections to talking about the historical fact that black women were, very much subjected to, as you smartly wrote:

"For the time period, her life did indeed include some fairly fairy-tale-esque triumphs, and I see the offer of an alternative narrative for a black woman -- an alternative to tears, whippings, sexual coercion, domestic abuse, Reagan's whole Cycle of Welfare lie, and all the other things the American psyche in particular no longer views as something that happened to us but as inherent to our existence -- as an excellent thing. It is not inherent to our existence, it was and is artificially inflicted, and people should be reminded of that from time to time."

It will be interesting to see how Belle is processed by "post racial" America.

chauncey devega said...

Medievalpoc tumblr is a great site. I think it will be an interesting movie. How it will be received and processed--viewer reception theory--within this social and political moment.

galleymac said...

I maintain that's not the film's nor the filmmaker's fault, though. The film was not made for America, and the director does have a duty to address her own social context. On the other hand, in this particular instance (JUST this particular instance :D ), I'm less concerned with white America, which will always be white America, and instead am pretty ecstatic for all the little black girls who will see something of themselves in Dido Belle. God knows they will never get another Disney Princess.

chauncey devega said...

I hear you. But don't forget, and as you certainly know, the Brits are in some ways just as much if not more so bloody and guilty in the TransAtlantic Slave Trade as are white Americans.

Do we need to tell lies in order for little black girls to feel like princesses? And where do those lies get us?

galleymac said...

My comments always come out about five times longer than I think they're going to. :P

chauncey devega said...

Damage control. I don't think the process is that intention, nor does it need to be. Tell a "nice" story to make "people" feel good and spend their money.

Courtney H said...

Here is a three-part Harriet Tubman "movie":

galleymac said...

I have to clarify -- my first response I think was based on a misreading of your post. I thought you were comparing two films set at the same time, the time of the Zong, and criticizing that Belle didn't mention it enough -- not that Belle actually mentioned it a great deal, but poorly.

In further news, eight hours of sleep is God's greatest gift to humanity. Oh my god.

I still do get what the director was trying to do and why she was trying to do it, the lacuna in the racial conversation taking place particularly in the UK that she was trying to fill, but yeah, that ought to have been handled better. I'll give it a shot and see what I think. (I have heard absolutely nothing about "The Retrieval" until your post here, though.)

KissedByTheSun said...

CDV I'm way off subject here but I just want to tell you I sent an email of a couple of images from ATLAH today. Some members were handing out lol worthy flyers. Thought you'd find them interesting.

SabrinaBee said...

Great piece CD, especially, this :

"as opposed to one point of view that is often wrong, distorted, and based on a series of interdependent of lies."

That is the crux of this whole "great society" the inability to admitting that "hey, we got some things wrong and they need to be corrected" Not, simply stopped and band-aided, glossed over and prettied up, but, writ into law to ensure that these things NEVER happen again. Was the original Constitution rewritten when slavery ended? No. The consequence is people are currently trying to remove amendments, piecemeal. And one day, they may even succeed. Not to mention all of the Crow laws that remain on the books in various states. Who or what is there to stop them in the future and who would even try?

I'm glad you wrote on the whitewashing of film, as well. It's not just in black history, either. Whenever there is a period piece extolling the contribution of this forbearer or that one, I often wonder, what are the black people doing at this point in the film? Imagine Jane Austen strolling through the garden and in the background, Jeeves is whipping someone because they didn't get the manure mixture correct. Or she happens upon Mr. Darby selling off the baby he had with the Negress, into slavery, in one frame, and he and Jane making google eyes at each other, on a carriage ride, in the next. How would those much more authentic, for that time, scenes look on the big screen? Hey, maybe there is some videographer out there that can superimpose reality into the romantic era.

joe manning said...

Yes Belle is essentially happy talk but at some level its gotta be a Hollywood exercise in public relations, censoring, and damage control for the Establishment.

Courtney H said...

@ SabrinaBee:

What do you think of this?

Courtney H said...

Here's an interesting article about Belle and Blacks in Britain back in the day:

Courtney H said...

Here's an article about Britain's Queen Charlotte, who was part German and part Afro-Portuguese:

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

CDV makes the excellent point at the end of his article: "Real justice involves pain and material sacrifice. Hugs and nice words and cinematic melodrama do none of that necessary work." But, white Americans (myself included) get off very cheaply. Christianity writ large, but especially the Christian Right version with its biblical literalism and biblical inerrance--is all about cheap grace. Mumble a few words, take Jesus, and all is forgiven. For the Catholics (I was one), say a few prayers, rub the beads, and all is forgiven. For the political and economic elites, say a few words, sorry I offended you, or sorry you felt offended, and you get a free pass. Sure, the Congress apologized for slavery; and? I'm sure the Congress has apologized for genocide against Native Americans; so? Conservatives rant and rave about reparations, but they've offered reparations on the cheap--the Jack Kemp model of enterprise zones with no taxes for ten years--which only lined the pockets of companies already wealthy. It would not actually cost anything except lost taxes. It did nothing to stop redlining; it did nothing to make up for excluding black workers from Social Security in the 1930s; it did nothing to make up for excluding black Americans from FHA loans that created white middle wealth; sixty years after Brown v Board of Education we have done nothing to make school opportunities equal, let alone more integrated. Corporations can kill miners and they get off with, sorry. Wall Street banks can destroy communities, homes, retirements, college educations, and dreams--as well as wiping out generations of wealth in black communities and they get off with, sorry, but can we have our humongous bonuses now? In America, talk and grace are cheap. I'm glad you call out the cheapness and hollowness.

chauncey devega said...

There is a great amount of insincerity w. how the language or religion and faith as offered by the group in power can be a cheap hustle. But, what of that language used by the out group and sincere social activists and visionaries to create real change?

Possible? Extreme outlier?

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

I think it is possible. I'm agnostic on good days, but I attend a very progressive church in San Francisco and enjoy the experience. But, change does not come cheap and it does not come without work and commitment. The event last Sunday for Mothers' Day was about it taking a village to take care of the children in the community. I do not disrespect religion because I do see that can it can do powerful things sociologically, collectively. But it can also be used collectively to not do something, to justify gross injustices. What got me thinking in this mode was the story of the resurrection--not as a fact but as a metaphor. Forgiveness requires a sacrifice. Now, as a separate matter I think the Christian story has it backwards--God sacrifices his son so that we forgive him, not the other way around. Nevertheless, forgiveness is not found or derived from incantations.

SabrinaBee said...

I think it is a single episode of one person being treated beyond what others have. It does nothing to exonerate that common practice was completely opposite to this experience. It would be interesting to see, and I haven't seen the movie so I don't know, how Belle reacted when she saw those of her kind being ill-treated. Maybe there is a scene in there where it did not sit well with her but, again, a single instance among what must have been many, many examples.


Belle was an excellent motion picture. Based on a true story it wonderfully filmed and the main characters were all played by fine actors, Not a false word or scene in the film.

chauncey devega said...

Not a false scene? Except for the facts?