Tuesday, 23 November 2010
Justice and Imagination
A week last Sunday BBC television started screening of a new series of Garrow’s Law, a legal drama loosely based on the life and career of William Garrow, one of the most significant figures in the history of English common law, the man who is largely responsible for the adversarial court system, the man who coined the phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ I watched the first series too, or as much as I was able, because I find legal drama as beguiling as history. Combine the two and I’m hooked!
Anyway, the episode in question dealt with the Zong case of 1781, in which the master of a trading ship stood accused of jettisoning worthless cargo and then submitting a fraudulent insurance claim for loss of profits. The plea was one of necessity, which the insurance company rejected. Dry stuff, you might think, except the cargo was human beings, African slaves being transported to the sugar plantations of the West Indies. Those who were thrown overboard, a hundred and twenty-two people in all, were mostly women and children.
It just so happened that I had not long finished reading On Reason and Imagination, an essay by William Hazlitt, a leading English radical and contemporary of Garrow’s. I was immediately reminded of the following passage;
…there are enormities to which no words can do adequate justice. Are we then, in order to form a complete idea of them, to omit every circumstance of aggravation, or to suppress every feeling of impatience that arises out of the details, least we should be accused of giving way to the influence of prejudice and passion? This would be to falsify the impression altogether, to misconstrue reason, and to fly in the face of nature. Suppose, for instance, that in the discussions on the Slave-Trade a description to the life was given of the horrors of the Middle Passage (as it was termed), that you saw the manner in which thousands of wretches, year after year, were stowed together in the hold of a slave-ship, without air, without light, without food, without hope, so that what they suffered in reality was brought home to you in imagination, till you felt a sickness of heart as one of them, could it be said that this was a prejudging of the case, that your knowing the extent of the evil disqualified you from pronouncing sentence upon it, and that your disgust and abhorrence were the effect of a heated imagination? No. Those evils that inflame the imagination and make the heart sick, ought not to leave the head cool. This is the very test and measure of the degree of the enormity, that it involuntary staggers and appals the mind.
The deliberate murder of these women and children certainly staggered and appalled my mind. But what staggered it even more is that they were not even considered to be human beings, that the charge was not one of murder, that they were of no more significance than any other cargo. The really horrifying thing is that neither the law at large nor the court on the day was interested in the moral atrocity at the heart of the Zong case; no, it was simply a question of commercial propriety.
We live in an age of atrocity, in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide and the Bosnian Massacres. It’s really not possible, then, for me or anyone else to sit in judgement over a more distant past, knowing full-well the kind of things human beings are capable of. Nevertheless, I still found the details of the Zong Affair unsettling for the simple reason that there was a time in England when, in the eyes of the law, certain human beings, merely because of the colour of their skin, had no right to life; that they were merely goods, as disposable as any other goods. This is made all the worse for me because this is a time when Christian belief, a Christian sense of morality, was much more central in daily life than it is today. But in the end justice, morality and even goodness itself are bloodless, self-referring and abstract concepts. Hazlitt was quite right: the understanding of suffering requires a leap of imagination.