"Feeding the Ghosts" as a Revisionist Historical Novel

Term Paper, 2010

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Revisionist Historical Novel
2.1 Selection Structures and Dominant References Areas
2.2 Narrative Levels
2.3 Time Reference
2.4 Relation between Fictional History and Knowledge of Historiography
2.5 Types of Illusion and Potential Functions of the Revisionist Historical Novel

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Regarding his third novel, Feeding the Ghosts, the British-Guyanese poet, playwright and novelist Fred D’Aguiar states in an interview for the “Caribbean Studies Journal” that “it was a piece of history that then grew out of an absence of facts about it” (Hyppolite). Apparently the author does not intend to convey a coherent, continuous historical account of the infamous ‘Zong-Massacre’, which took place in 1781, but rather the ruins of history in a manner of an “as-if-testimony” (Bröck 29). Thus, the novel belongs to the genre of historical fiction which combines in a postcolonial context imaginative elements and historical facts with regard to the historiographical document of the death of 131 Africans “at the hands of profit-hungry British slave traders and investors on board the slave ship Zong” (Pichler 7).

Sailing from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica, the slave ship carried 442 slaves, more than it could safely transport and was therefore overloaded and lacked sufficient provisions for its ‘cargo’. Together with malnutrition and disease, this overcrowding led to Captain Luke Collingwood’s decision to throw the sick overboard in order to claim money from the insurers, who covered £39 compensation a head, as long as the action was taken to safeguard the ship’s safety. The resulting court trial caused much attention as the case of the Zong outnumbered the known fashion and consequently lead to abolitionist support as the legal status of slaves as ‘cargo’ was confirmed by the concluding verdict. Finally, in 1790 a preliminary bill was passed which ruled out “insurances claims resulting from slave mortality through natural death or ill treatment, or against loss by throwing overboard of slaves on any account whatsoever” (Walvin 20).

Even though “those deaths [...] cannot be undone” (D’Aguiar 230) D’Aguiar succeeds at creating a “counter-memory to Britain’s official memory” (Pichler 1) by recreating this traumatic incident in the history of the Middle Passage and the subsequent trial from the perspective of his heroine Mintah, a Fetu slave woman. As a consequence, Feeding the Ghosts may be content-wise already categorized as a revisionist historical novel as according to McHale

the postmodernist historical is revisionist in two senses. First, it revises the content of the historical record, reinterpreting the historical record, often demystifying or debunking the orthodox version of the past. Secondly, it revises, indeed transforms, the conventions and norms of historical fiction itself./ (90)

Feeding the Ghosts was apparently inspired by D’Aguiar’s wish to rewrite history, particularly from a point of view that has been neglected in traditional historiography. The paper at hand pursues the question if his novel follows the formal criteria which define a revisionist historical novel. In order to answer this question this essay clarifies in its main part these formal criteria by drawing on a typology of Ansgar Nünning. With the determination of five criteria the prominent German narratologist differentiates the historical novel into the following five types: documentary historical novel, realistic historical novel, revisionist historical novel, meta-historical novel and historiographic metafiction (cf. Nünning 256-262). After each criterion concerning the revisionist historical novel has been theoretically illuminated, the essay puts its focus on a text-oriented analysis in order to detect if the novel of interest meets the discussed criteria.

2. The Revisionist Historical Novel

Historical fiction up to the Sixties was pre-dominated by realist conventions that have become innovated in the revisionist historical novel through revision and transformation. As it has already been hinted at, revisionist historical novels deal primarily with topics that give emphasis to a critical attitude towards the past and testify a revised historical consciousness since they can be compre-hended as offenses against the canonized history. By writing from a point of view that has been suppressed in traditional historiography, that is to say to choose characters that have been victims of historical events, the revisionist historical novel makes much stronger use of the privilege of fiction. This type of the historical novel utilizes specific fictional and innovate forms of historiography which match the modified understanding of concepts such as history, memory, remembrance, time and historical awareness. (cf. Nünning 268-269) In order to specify the revisionist historical novel, criteria such as selection structures and dominant reference areas have to be characterized.

2.1 Selection Structures and Dominant References Areas

A distinctive feature of the revisionist historical novels is its mixed ratio between heteroreferential and autoreferential references. Heteroreferential stands for references outside of the narrated world to historical persons, events and texts; whereas autoreferential means that the references refer to the text itself. Even though heteroreferential references frequently occur in revisionist historical novels, it is the fictional elements that are foregrounded and explicitly marked within this type of historical novel. Metafictional elements, these are elements that deal with the novel’s fictional nature and make the reader aware that the narrated world in the text is fabricated, are usually extensively concealed. Historical events and historiography primarily serve as a point of reference with regard to the extratextual reference area. (cf. Nünning 270)

Paying close attention to heteroreferential references in Feeding the Ghosts, the reader of the novel comes to know by reading D’Aguiar’s ‘Acknowledgements’ (D’Aguiar) that the author’s research for his novel is mainly based on a publication by the Black History Resource Group Publication and an exhibit in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Gallery on Merseyside, which he visited in 1994 as he was in Liverpool (cf. Hyppolite). D’Aguiar learned from the ship’s log that one person climbed back on board after having been flung into the sea, but as the log did not provide further factual details who this person was (cf. Hyppolite), D’Aguiar aimed to “fill in the details lost to history” (Frias 424). Thus, the novelist modifies the facts by fictionalizing that person and assigning her the identity of Mintah, a Fetu slave woman who learned English and become literate in a Danish Christian mission (cf. D’Aguiar 29-31).

Other factual details such as the name of the ship, “Zong” (D’Aguiar 9), and the name of the captain’s first mate, “Kelsal” (D’Aguiar 9), are skillfully integrated into D’Aguiar’s fictional plot. The captain’s fictional name, however, has been changed from Collingwood to “Cunningham” (D’Aguiar 9). As Froude-Durix correctly observes, this name “evokes his [the captain’s] cunning, deceitful and unprincipled character” (48) which arguably meets the author’s intention. Another historical person is Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, to whom D’Aguiar refers to in the novel’s second part (D’Aguiar 137) which narrates the court trial. The circumstances in the court are highly fictionalized; nevertheless, the author portrays the final verdict[1] in line with the historical records of the trial.

The first and longest part of D’Aguiars narrative employs an omniscient narrator in order to describe the daily routine on the Zong which includes the crew’s torturing of the enslaved Africans. Rape also belonged to this reality. D’Aguiar, however, implies rather than describes these incidents of abuse but fictionally fully explores another situation which frequently occurred on the slave ships in the triangular trade, namely the “compulsory dance commanded by slavers” (Kellet 50). As the dance with its spiritual roots is a sacred ritual for African women this kind of abuse is especially cruel for African females (cf. Kellett 50). After having received the command to dance and a lash on her feet (cf. D’Aguiar 30) Mintah obeys the captain’s order, but at the same time she embodies resistance as she “decided to dance the death of fertility dance” (D’Aguiar 31). Kellett states that Mintah’s choice of dance ensures that she will never been an “unwilling promoter of the system of slavery” (Kellett 52). Accordingly, one encounters yet another though, more concealed heteroreferential reference as female slaves were used to bear offspring as quickly as possible in order to guarantee new slaves (cf. Kellett 52).

Interestingly, the author only refers to a single date, 1833, when the Emancipation Act called the Abolition of Slavery Act passed in the British Parliament and guaranteed freedom to all slaves in Jamaica (cf. D’Aguiar 204), the country in which Mintah settles after she bought her freedom (cf. D’Aguiar 206-207). One may agree with Froude-Durix who claims that especially this reference to history “suggests an optimistic conclusion for it leads to the beginning of another, different history in the Caribbean” (Froude-Durix 54).

After having discussed some of the fact references one ought to pay attention to the “textual signposts of fictionality” (Neumann & Nünning 23). One of the textual features which signal fictionality is the representational technique to make use of an omniscient narrator and unrestricted representation of conscious-ness (cf. Neumann & Nünning 23). D’Aguiar grants the reader this kind of unrestricted access in the third part of his novel by unfolding on the intradiegetic level Mintah’s inner life by foregrounding her mind and memories. Mintah appears to consciously select “from a well of remembrances those moments and experiences she deems worth telling and sharing” (Pichler 8). Her self-narrative compromises recollections of her early childhood in Africa, her time at the fort where she was introduced to the worship of God by Danish missionaries, her later enslavement and her transportation on the Zong. The sequential order of her memories, however, is repetitively interrupted by her traumatic experiences on the Zong and are ought to be understood as references to the narrative account of the voyage in the second part of the novel.

As it has been proofed above, Feeding the Ghosts makes used of a mixed ratio between heteroreferential and autoreferential references which are skillfully presented in a balanced manner. Consequently, one may conclude that even though D’Aguiar employs quite a number of heteroreferential references, the novel’s fictional nature is apparent and therefore the introduced criterion is met with his narrative.


[1] “He’d [Lord Mansfield had] sum up in favour of the investors and order the insurers to pay up right away.” D’Aguiar 171.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


"Feeding the Ghosts" as a Revisionist Historical Novel
University of Wuppertal
The Representation of Slavery from Aphra Behn to Bernadine Evaristo
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
430 KB
Fred D'Aguir, Feeding the Ghosts, Revisionist Novel, Revisionist Historical Novel, Nünning, Typology, historical novel
Quote paper
Bianca Müller (Author), 2010, "Feeding the Ghosts" as a Revisionist Historical Novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/169027


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