Red Sea

A haunting poem about the sinking of slave ship The Zong in 1781.

Takudzwanashe Mukaro

She came on a summer’s night to rest on banks of gold.
Her stomach was too full with stories of blood untold.
She yawned a stench so thick; her jaws of hell were wide.
Chained by the pale one’s eye, where was I supposed to hide?

With mighty, filthy flourish, the wings of outrage cried,
“More my Lords of Death?” She pled to a melting sky.
For the pale hand gripped us with fear of the well-known,
What arctic pit was this that weighed upon our bone?

And as the arms of the ocean pulled away the damned,
I felt that they were straining beneath the whites’ demand.
But hush and listen: fate echoed in the halls,
“Go back! Turn back! All you pitiless, abandoned souls!”

Life is a faint reflection of the coming eternal night.
The crack of the whip sharpened me yet I saw the fade of my fight.
A ghastly plan was founded as she ploughed through the graves,
Hands raised to a darkened sun – hands consumed by mouths of waves.

The End is ready to sheath us; the waters are taking me there.
Unfasten your bolts, you vault of heaven,
My soul won’t anchor here.


Historical Context

This poem is about the atrocity of a slave ship called The Zong. The ship had been coming from the coast of West Africa but due to a navigational error, the ship missed its destination in the Caribbean and had to spend an extra three weeks at sea. During this time, drinking water grew short and even more sickness had spread amongst the slaves and the crew. Approximately 159 African captives were thrown overboard and drowned because if they had died on board, the crew would not have been able to claim insurance money as black people were legally considered to be ‘cargo’. This meant that even though the crew were tried in 1783, the case was heard as an insurance dispute rather than a murder trial.

From BBC Bitesize.

About Slave Ships

Up to 800 slaves would be crammed at the very bottom of one ship. All the slaves were packed tightly together in what was called ‘Bristol Fashion’, which meant they were stacked in shelves that left no room whatsoever for movement. As one would imagine, such tight packing and lack of movement for long periods of time meant that slaves lived in unsanitary conditions among human waste. Many slaves also suffered from seasickness, which added vomit to an already horrifying environment. Slaves would be kept chained in Bristol Fashion’ for up to 22 hours a day, fed only two barren meals and were regularly whipped to deter a slave revolt. Many died before they even reached the Caribbean.

More information at BBC History.

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