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Soul Murder and the Profound Brokenness of Human Culture

(Credit: flickr / cc / Hartwig HKD)All men are created equal. All chattel are insured.

I saw the movie Belle the other day and a piece of it got stuck in my head. The costume drama, set in England in the 1780s, hinged on a real historical event: the monstrous voyage of the slave ship Zong in 1781, from West Africa to the Caribbean. Its cargo when it set out on its transatlantic voyage included some 470 tightly packed human beings — too tightly packed, it turns out. Disease ran through the cargo hold. Slaves and crewmen began to die. The ship got lost. They began running low on water. Eventually the surviving crew jettisoned . . . 132 live humans, still in chains. This was business as usual.

Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2008, commemorating the bicentennial of the official end of the slave trade in the British Empire: “Over almost four centuries, from roughly 1500 to 1870, 12 million to 13 million Africans were forced onto slave ships and sailed to New World plantations. . . . We know that during the middle passage, about 1.8 million of these enslaved men, women and children died, their bodies thrown overboard to the sharks that usually trailed the vessels.”

Uh, we don’t talk about this too much, do we? The era in question is the glorious Age of Exploration, when Europe went out and discovered the rest of the world. In the classrooms of my childhood, they taught us about the silk trade and the noble quest for new sea routes and that sort of thing. Go, civilization! I remember no unpleasant disclosures about the rape of Africa or the profit to be made by Europe’s upper classes in human trafficking.

Belle’s plot, though it involves fictionalized characters, addresses the real court case that followed the Zong’s arrival in Jamaica. This case was not about the murder of 132 people but whether or not the ship’s owners could collect insurance on the loss of 132 slaves.

Eventually the case was heard before the highest court in Great Britain. In a historically significant decision, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, ruled in favor of the insurance company: No, the insurers weren’t obliged to pay cash for deliberately discarded slaves. The British abolition movement was ignited by this trial and abolitionists saw the ruling as a great victory.

And so it all sits in history. But the movie, wrapping the historical details in period costumes and a fictional love story, managed to pull off a remarkable feat, in my humble opinion. It brought the Zong and all its implications smack into the 21st century, not abstractly, as history, but with a raw and terrifying contemporary relevance. We’re not done with our past.

As Rediker wrote in his essay: “. . . if European, African and American societies are haunted by the legacies of race, class and slavery, the slave ship is the ghost ship of our modern consciousness.”

The discarded cargo of our past is still with us, no matter how hard we try to ignore it. The slavery out of which we constructed civilization — the cruel certainty of our moral relativism, the enormous profit, the buried psycho-spiritual consequences — awaits, awaits, awaits . . . our collective grief and atonement.

They had single names, like our pets: Jim and Jack, Winney and Zach, Congo and Chloe. They were meant to be worked to death and forgotten. But they remain with us, deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of our global culture, staring at its soul.

In refusing to take up a criminal case against the captain and crew of the Zong, Justice John Lee, British solicitor general, reputedly said: “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 honorable men of murder. . . . The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

This is our legacy, as much as and perhaps more than whatever else has shaped us. Historian Nell Painter has used the term “soul murder” in describing the impact of slavery. Indeed, she is the author of the book Soul Murder and Slavery. Interviewed some years ago by PBS, she talked about the terrible psychological wreckage on every side of slave life.

Speaking of the children of plantation owners, who at a certain age would be forced to observe slave beatings, she noted that the girls could retain at least partial identification, as females, with the victim. “But the boy must learn to identify with the beater,” she said. “If he doesn’t, then he’s not fully a man. So that makes the ability to inflict violence an integral part of one’s manhood.”

Do we not continue to reap these consequences? This week, at a high school in Troutdale, Ore., a 15-year-old boy “opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle and also was carrying a semi-automatic pistol that he did not use, as well as a knife and nine loaded ammunition magazines capable of holding several hundred rounds,” according to Reuters.

Ho hum. This insanity is on the increase, as everyone knows. It’s an imitation of militarism, but there’s more to it than that. We’ve barely begun to acknowledge, let alone heal, the profound brokenness of human culture. We’re still lost in the Age of Exploration.