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A woman comes across a book in a store: The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker. Notably, it’s been filed and wrongly located in the ‘Africa’ section. When she confronts the store assistants with this issue, they casually refuse responsibility and make no effort to alter this error. This book should’ve been filed and claimed under ‘British History’ — this is the striking reality that introduces you to The Meaning of Zong.
Written by, and starring Giles Terera, The Meaning of Zong sheds necessary light on a dark, but rarely told part of our history. In the form of an audio play, this mighty tale is presented by Bristol Old Vic and BBC3 as part of BBC Lights Up.
In 1781, the slave ship Zong made it’s crossing to Jamaica. 132 African slaves were cruelly thrown overboard and left to drown. Why? Because the journey was due to take 11 days and, for the number of people on board, they had 3 days’ supply of water. This massacre was seen as a “necessity” and the slave owners attempted to claim compensation.
After reading about this at his work as a barber, Gustavas Vassa goes to anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharpe to demand support in justice for the unnoticed crime. The trials of the Zong were essential in moving towards abolition.
This play tells many stories and intertwines the many lived experiences of Black people. We hear scenes of slavery from onboard a ship, we hear near-death experiences, we hear prejudice, racism, and of the complete disregard of human lives. It’s heavy, but it’s crucial.
In all audio plays, we appreciate and value the power of the voice. Zong’s ensemble radiates a spirit of revolution through their vocal energy, and unleash a deep-rooted anger present within the script — it’s electric to listen to. When Vassa remembers his childhood name of Olaudah Equiano, Terera releases a sound of profound pain which is then scored with an intense crescendo of spiritual sound and African singing — it feels like a rebirth.
A whispering female voice runs throughout the piece, repeating numbers of deaths or heightening emotions, internal monologues and linking characters with a connected fire. This voice feels like the future calling, a fate that drives each character onwards, towards change — it’s chilling, but utterly thrilling.
The Meaning of Zong is undoubtedly a powerful story of endurance. It reminds us all of the progress we have made but also of the progress we can create, and what we are all responsible for. If you don’t know about this story, I urge you to listen and learn.