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“The Slave Ship” and the ghosts that reside

This particular write-up was a favourite of mine last year. This is the result of a few musings regarding Turner’s controversial depiction of the slave trade and how poetry or other forms of art can highlight certain historical and epistemological shortcomings. The topic drove home how history is written and re-written with a lacklustre examination of important perspectives and difficult experiences. I hope you enjoy.


A critical analysis of David Dabydeen’s “Turner” in relation to Derrida’s notion of ‘Hauntology’

The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables, so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.’” (Mark 4:12 Berean Study Bible)

Turner.png

Fig 1. J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On”

Guyanese poet David Dabydeen’s Turner (1995) is an evocative narrative response to J. M. W. Turner’s celebrated painting “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying – Typhoon Coming On”, first exhibited in 1840. Turner’s seminal work came much too late to perhaps be considered a truly poignant and timely critique, slavery having already been abolished in the British Empire by 1833. The implication of this renders the painting prone to critique as to its intention. Its subject matter lends itself to the notion of guilt and self-chastisement, as the history of slavery at the time of its painting were considered to be increasingly disgraceful, and could thereby be seen to have been used as a parable for the public to reflect and repent upon. I quote Mark 4:12 with the purpose of highlighting the essence of Dabydeen’s criticism of the painting – the tendency for history to be shaped by the few, the dichotomy between the foregrounded subject matter and its relegation to the ‘background’, objectified as victims, and for knowledge to be taken for granted in the lack of acknowledgement of perspectives that are now irretrievable. Dabydeen utilizes Turner’s painting as an excavation site as he attempts to recall the ghosts of the submerged slaves’ from the ‘abyss’ of Turner’s canvas and colonial history. The poem goes beyond its ekphrastic qualities in its confrontation of representation through the interplay of the verbal and the visual, and in the questioning of historical narratives by bringing to life the invented biography of desires, memories and experiences of the drowning African.

Turner’s parabolic painting is fleshed out by Dabydeen – for all that is lacking in Turner’s depiction Dabydeen makes up for rather voraciously with his poem. At the centre of his visual language he places the notion of a western-imposed narrative, a ‘cleanse’ (IX) of African heritage by the seas, and his re-awakening by the still-born baby that joins him, who (like Dabydeen does for the reader) acts as an agent for self-recognition:

«I had forgotten the years, now wakened
By the creature that washed towards me.
[..] For years I had known
These scenes, and I had forgotten the years
-« (VII)

Dabydeen does something else than give voice to the subaltern. In comparison to Derrida’s spectre, subaltern individuals are not here to lend us their voices, as we cannot truly know them (the ghosts of our past), rather, Dabydeen highlights what he sees to be detrimental re-tellings of violent, integral histories by those who do not truly know them. We must be shaken awake and made to listen, be made to realize the ignorance and forgetfulness of colonial history, which has been abandoned and neglected by the tides of time: «I have become the sea’s whore» (IX). Dabydeen alludes to the sense that the consolidation of established narratives lead to a subjection that goes beyond the body, or the ephemeral, it is a subjection of vital and traumatic collective experience in the past, present and future, reinforced by a history written by and in the perspective of the victors. In the poem, Dabydeen’s fable is the «dimly recalled, or dead» (I) history of the forgotten slave in the present. The imagery of unspoken violations (physically and psychologically) is applied throughout the poem as an evocation of both the subjected and dominant perspectives. One such example can be read early on in the poem, when the ‘I’ wrestles with past memories and the invading events of the present:

«our women […] the salt hardens
On their skin, a crust of white that hides
Lines of neglect, indelicacies.
[..] sequins hemmed into their flesh through golden
Threads of hair. The Sea decorates, violates.
[…] The sea strip them clean. I am ashamed
To Look upon the nakedness of my mothers.
» (V)

Above all Dabydeen confronts the lack of responsibility taken in considering the plurality of experience, and pushes the reader towards a reconsideration of presented subaltern narratives. In some stanzas he almost mocks the ignorance of present history and the celebratory status of Turner’s painting – we have been ‘asleep’ in the sense that we acknowledged the atrocities that occurred during colonization and slavery, but have yet to truly listen or make amends in the history books – we could hear but did not listen, history’s ‘speech’ is devoid of true representation or perspective:

«What sleep will leave me restless when I wake?
What mindfulness that nothing has remained
Original? There could have been some small
And monumental faith. Even the leper
Conserves each grain of skin, the aged
Grin to display a tooth sensuously
Preserved in gum, memorial to festivity
And speech that mocks the present and the time
To come
» (X)

J. M. W Turner evokes in his iconic painting visible disjunctions below and above the surface of the sea – the beauty and cruelty of nature, the light and the dark, the floating and the sinking. Dabydeen’s response however evokes hidden disjunctions as outlined by Derrida in his notion of hauntology, between the immediacy of presence and the figure of the ‘historical’ ghost in his conceptualization of the drowning slave. We must look to what remains of these accounts to atone for our lack of responsibility in recording and representing these injustices – our debt to the past and the future. Dabydeen is aligning himself with the notion of hauntology in his efforts towards highlighting the responsibility to give these ghosts speech, or at the very least, to acknowledge what has been lost and what has been reformulated through the perspective of colonizers. Following this point of view – Dabydeen’s efforts should not be seen to directly give them speech, but functions rather as the hand holding a loudspeaker – echoing sentiments that should be voiced, listened to and made visible. Dabydeen is not devoid of his own limitations, yet he expresses an awareness of his own lack of true voicing and representation in his application of the overtly imaginary landscape, invented body and biography.

In Turner’s painting the African is depicted but not seen, heard but not listened to. In this sense, Dabydeen is attempting to overturn the celebration of a parable (the painting), in favour of a hauntological approach. The interplay between the past, present and future in Dabydeen’s literary devices echoes the ephemeral quality of Derrida’s ghosts in the re-imagining of histories. The many experiences that make up his poem are expressed through a vivacity and passion that has been left unexplored in Turner’s painting. Dabydeen’s greatest lesson (and critique) is that of responsibility, in poetic and artistic expression. In acknowledging that something has been lost, he offers a manner of remembering that does not relegate the slaves’ experiences to mere curiosity, but rather poses the question of how we represent, write about and depict the past.  


Essay written as part of my MA degree in Contemporary Art and World Art Studies at Leiden University, 2016-17.

Dabydeen, D. (1994). Turner: new & selected poems (p. 21). Cape Poetry.

Derrida, J. (1994) “Exordium” and “Injunctions of Marx.” Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York: Routledge. XVI-XX; 1-15.

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