9.12.2008

Ghost Ships

The American Scholar - A Dark Page in Our History - By Marcus Rediker

The slave ship is a ghost ship, sailing around the edges of our consciousness. We pretend it is not there, but it haunts us. It also challenges us: a telling test of any society that considers itself to be a democracy is its ability to face the dark pages of its history. Do we dare in this post-9/11 age to look back on the terror that was instrumental to the making of America?
I found this reference in 3quarksdaily. The quote comes from a speech given by the author of a new book documenting the American slave trade (this is the 200th anniversary of it's being abolished, here, apparently), but the idea of a ghost ship was so evocative, and the more I consider it the more perfect. The quintessential ghost ship tale in English literature is probably the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and it speaks to the point that Mr. Rediker does with a certain poignancy. The Mariner and his crew are accidentally driven into the waters of Antarctica, where they suffer until they are led out by a great albatross, a sort of tutelary spirit there - only as they enter warmer seas, the Mariner kills the albatross with a crossbow. Later, he is forced to wear the body of the bird about his neck, as a representation of the weight of his sin. Leaving aside the finer points of literary narrative, this struck me as such a powerful literary narrative, that we, as a nation were carried from the squalor of the early colonies largely on the wings of the unwilling slaves - not only in the south, where they had plantations, but in the North where Massachussets, for instance, was founded on the infamous Triangle trade, producing molasses to be made into rum, from the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. We expanded westward by trampling on the Native Americans, and more or less enslaving wave after wave of 'albatrosses' - the Chinese immigrants that built the transcontinental railroad, the immigrants that we stuffed into the squalor of cities and used to enrich the pockets of factory owners, and establish our industrial might, the Irishmen in the civil war, taken straight from the dock of the immigration ship to the dock of the military ship, then shipped back a few months later on the same ships in coffins. This is what our nation was built on, this is, more or less, the only reason our nation survived and prospered, and we wear these sins about our necks, always travelling onward, but never resting. Like the mariner, I do not think we can recreate the things we have destroyed. I don't believe in restitution for the ancestors of slaves, not because I don't think they are owed something, but because any payment you could give would be an insult to what we took by force, so long ago. Redemption is a process of love, mercy, forgiveness. It's not something that can be 'made right', anymore. In one of the most famous ships, the Mariner's ship happens upon the ship where Death and Life-in-Death play at dice, to claim the souls of the men on the ship. Death wins the lives of the crew, Life-in-Death wins the soul of the mariner, the guilty one. And the Mariner is cursed, forever, to wander the earth and tell his tale to instruct the world's people with his history. America, if it cannot man it's ghost ships, it's ships of pain and injustice and sorrow, is doomed to the same fate - to live on as a mockery of life, as a mockery of what it is meant to be, to serve as a warning instead of a beacon.