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Powerful and moving: Florence Eshalomi reviews 'The Meaning of Zong'

Ényì Okoronkwo as the former slave and abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano | Photographer: Jemima Yong

3 min read

Playwright Giles Terera brings humanity to this stage portrayal of one of the most notorious chapters of the Atlantic slave trade

In 1781, just under 250 years ago, the crew of the slave ship Zong had sailed far west of their destination of Jamacia and were running short of water.

Knowing that they would not get insurance pay-outs should the enslaved people either die onshore, or from natural causes, the crew turned to the principle of general average. This would, in theory, allow the slave traders to claim losses for any “cargo” thrown overboard to save the rest of the “cargo”.

Over the next few days, 142 African enslaved people were massacred on the Zong simply to enable the crew and their syndicate to claim insurance.

This is not, by far, the only atrocity of the slave trade. Nor is it the only one to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer callousness and inhumanity of the Atlantic slave trade.

But the story of the Zong, eventually, became a well-known topic amongst the abolitionist movement.

The legal challenge around the payment of compensation allowed the case to air publicly the details – and the horrors it told helped to spearhead calls to abolish slavery over the coming decades.

The Meaning of Zong, a play by Giles Terera, adds a fresh and modern interpretation to this important tale.

Telling parallel stories can be a difficult task, but Terera pulls it off with particular success

Terera paints his picture of the Zong chiefly through two planes: the story of three women enslaved onboard the Zong, and the attempts of abolitionists – primarily Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp – to bring attention to this case through the unjust and oppressive UK press and justice system.

Telling parallel stories with the same effectiveness can be a difficult task, but it is one that Terera pulls off with particular success.

The heart-breaking brutality of the situation on the Zong for the enslaved people pairs well both the frustrating stuffiness of the legal system and the anger portrayed by the abolitionists, helping to bring life to the legal battles taking place in the UK.

Terera also excels in bringing humanity to all the characters involved.

This is true not just for the horrific reality experienced on the Zong, but also for the complex connections between abolitionists.

Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp had powerful scenes dealing with their relationship with each other, with their own identity and with wider institutions within the UK.

These were important additions to the story and helped tie the message to the contemporary message within the play. 

From the outset, it is clear that Terera wishes to connect the story of the Zong closely to modern society, his script scattered with phrases and parables that helps place the play in the context of our world today.

Powerful and moving, the play helped bring an appalling atrocity to life, and I would urge anyone to keep an eye out should future tour dates be added in a theatre near them.

Florence Eshalomi is Labour MP for Vauxhall

The Meaning of Zong
Written by: Giles Terera
Venue: Barbican Theatre*

* The production has now finished its run at the Barbican, details of future tour dates have yet to be announced


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