Zong Massacre (Image Source: Wikipedia)
St. George del Mina (Image Source: From the 1892 book “The Story of Africa and its Explorers”)
Once, before the many times, I knew of an unstable force more violent than languid. Whatever peace found was quickly drowned in chaos. There was no surface, no certainty to this madness. Even the outstretch of land I called my home soon became a graveyard for those of my likeness. Yet from it, a paradise arose for a governor, his two wives and a few priests.
I was a man then. But barely. A few dry seasons short of boyhood. My name was unmemorable — like the foam that arose and faded with the twist of the sea. When I failed to answer it, I noticed how my master’s horse would perk in my stead. Ironically, this was the same horse he used to drag me before the door of no return.
Confined to a cage with many others who resembled me, I gazed at my master’s distant figure. He stood at the ledge of a castle overlooking the kingdom’s sea, accepting weapons from the strangers of this port. His buyer was one of many whose skin could only be compared to the white of the castle walls. I knew of his people — how keen they were on buying other people from this kingdom, stuffing them in ships before sailing off into distant lands.
Elders said it was the reason for this castle. The presence of these men signalled the fate of poor servants. And it was clear now that I was terrible, too unwilling to serve my own master. A perfect contender for the base of this man’s ship. It was where I, along with many others of my likeness, was left to reckon with the dark.
How strange. The rest escapes me.
I can tell you find me a terrible storyteller. Why offer a beginning with no end? End with no intention of finishing the beginning? But believe me when I tell you they’ve left me this way. Fragments I am forced to piece together myself.
I hope to one day remember it all. So I can tell you what I was and could have been.
Amongst the earlier times and the night before the worst of it, I became a resolve. A decision beyond the eternal rows of Coffea somewhere within the cover of an uncharted forest. I was human, but just barely. I was devoured by the island and its people — not les grands and les petits who rested peacefully between the safety of their walls, but les noirs and les affranchis who gathered beneath a coming storm.
It was there I was swallowed and became their resolve.
Released by the thunder, I fell into the mouths of Boukman and Cecile, the leaders of this pact. Our words lit pyres surrounding a clearing, shadows of les noirs and les affranchis dancing amongst the trees. Within Boukman, I became both fearless and hungry, our sights set on the boar bound at our feet. With Cecile, I became rage I’ve yet known before — a sort of motherly anger. An unyielding desire to keep safe the women and children of les noirs et les affranchis.
When our words were accepted by the people, we sealed them by thunder and blade. I became rage in the form of blood flowing from the sacrifice. A scarlet taint in the people’s teeth and the island which quenched for more.
Tonight, fires would dance across the land. Shackles would break and the island would be satiated from the peaks of isolated mountains down through its acres of Coffea and sugar plantations tilled upon native bodies.
Tonight, I would be the fall of despotism.
Many times I was revolutions. A metallic scent which permeates the earth.
I still feel pieces of me stirring beneath the island of unrest. And I yearn for something I have yet to taste, something which both ebbs and flows as the eras pass.
But this was a better telling, was it not? A tale of tyranny’s end. Or at least the beginnings of it. Triumph and bloodshed. Certainly more interesting than the last.
Yet you remain quiet.
In times long after the fall of subjugation, but a year before my dignity was codified, I knew of a spark which ignited flames throughout the cities of a nation. People poured into the streets, linking arms as they gathered around the capitol. These fires burned through a pool, reflecting as far as a monument’s zenith. And with an explosion, the crowd was ablaze as a man told them of his dream.
I knew of this spark. But this spark was not me.
I was children. Four of them. Little girls with more dreams than the skies could ever hold.
These names I recall so easily, words soon to be plastered upon every coloured newspaper across Birmingham.
Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Carol.
It was early morning, a few hours before Sunday service and the junior choir was fitting into their robes. Our church’s makeshift dressing room was the entire space of the basement. The best place for privacy and the head secretary didn’t mind hearing us practice our scales.
I, Cynthia, was helping myself, Carol, into my robe. There was trouble with the buttons again, and it might need the help of a safety pin. I was going to ask the head secretary if she had a spare, but was stopped by Addie Mae.
“You hear that?” I asked. Ticking. Odd. There were no clocks in the basement.
I (Cynthia) shrugged, hearing nothing but the head secretary finally answering the phone. But before I could leave the room, a blast erupts from beneath me — us — and we become one with the concrete walls.
I do not care to share the state of my bodies’. But I do wish to say this: No matter how horrifying, I am still trapped within these moments. Still scattered by the heat of an explosion and lingering somewhere beyond the base of a ship.
And despite it all, I feel comfortable sharing this with you.
You make this easy, memories waft through when you allow them to.
I knew of a time within the era of my subjugation — when bodies were still being transported in the hundreds. Many were disappearing, vanishing into thin air and leaving sugar mills deserted and plantations overrun with weeds. I knew of the ghosts and tales of winged people that spread throughout the land. I knew of the makings of a hunt, desperation taking few far, only to cease at the base of the mountains.
It was from the very crest of these peaks that I stood amongst many, waiting.
War was imminent.
I was a woman then, trained in the ways of unseen movements. A sort of dance. One that our captors could yet comprehend. Every movement I knew came from my elders, and their knowledge from elders before them. I practiced these steps before the very eyes of my overseers. For them, it was a dance and only that. For me, it was steps towards liberation.
When night fell, I, along with people of the mountains, would flood into neighbouring plantations, setting fire and raiding them of their crops, tools, and — yes — even their slaves. There was little retaliation, only fear. Fear of the ghosts of this land and the unpredictability of their combat. We were agile, too quick for the strike of a blade. And when the terror was done, we slipped back into the cover of the mountains. Back into the edge of a hidden kingdom.
Or as those who feared us deemed, Palmares.
I know now what I am.
I am a people and their emotions. Women. Men. Children. Their terror and victories — all of which were repressed. Everything I yearn for has been wrested from my hands. But through you, I find something. Promise? Hope?
You do not say. And through our silence, I recall something from that ship. My prison below water.
A word. A name.
The crew’s men had uttered it countless times. A word that rang in my mind with the rolling of the ship. There I lay, cargo amongst cargo, forced to listen to the slow decline of men’s sanity and the cries of women and children.
It was the name someone — a crew member, possibly — had shouted overhead, a word surfacing above the muffled cries. Footsteps kept thumping back and forth, only adding to the periodic slapping of waves against the hull. We had grown quiet by then, suffocated by the smell of decay and squalidity. Whatever madness had infected us here, had passed. Only now it spread throughout those on the deck.
This was the sound the hatch made when flung open. I was blinded by a flood of light and promptly heaved out of the ship’s base. My legs refused to work, leaving me to be dragged along the deck. Oddly, I felt nothing. Time allowed numbness to reign over my body. I was weak, barely able to take in the state of the ship’s crew.
The sound of the ship’s bell.
The man holding me struck me across the face, spitting something in his tongue. The breeze lengthened the sting, mists of saltwater spraying against my face. I was at the edge of the ship, now facing the hunger of the sea. Waves rammed into the ship, leaving an unrelenting foam. A thin whiteness which clung to the outlines of the hull.
The realization that I wasn’t alone. More cargo was removed from the ship’s depths. Men, women, children — all of them seized, being dragged out and thrust into the ocean.
A cry from the distance — not from the crew members or the cargo, but from across the ocean. It was a woman with outstretched arms and skin as deep as the sea’s depths. Yemoja. She extended an offer, to which I quickly accepted.
The sound of my body crashing into the ocean.
And I am met with the warmth of your embrace, parts of me still trapped in the fire, the waters, the earth and the winds.
But for now, you tell me to rest.