Artist Ayesha Hameed reflects on automation and the labour of illegalized immigrants, unpacking the amalgamation of human and machine, in this case the migrant body and the boat. This essay is part of the publication Work, Body, Leisure (2018).
1. Ghost Ship
On April 29, 2006, a twenty-foot boat was spotted off the south-eastern coast of Barbados. On board, eleven bodies were found by the coastguards, preserved and desiccated by the sun and salt water. The ghost ship was adrift for four months on the Atlantic Ocean. It set sail on Christmas day in Praia in the Cape Verde Islands, full of migrants from Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and Gambia, en route to the Canary Islands. Each of these people paid £890 for their place on the boat.
The boat ran into trouble at Nouadhibou, a Mauritian port, and was towed towards its destination for a time by another ship. An article in The Guardian conjectures that the line was severed, possibly by being hacked with a machete. Once adrift, the ship began its slow movement across the Atlantic, buffeted by the winds and rain, and pulled westward by the ocean’s currents. By January, all the passengers had died, with many of their bodies either jettisoned into the sea or washed overboard. The ghost ship then travelled the 2,800 miles to Barbados.
A note written by one of the men who died on board and a ticket for a Senegalese Airlines flight found on the boat provided the first pieces of the puzzle. The note read:
"I would like to send to my family in Bassada [a town in the interior of Senegal] a sum of money. Please excuse me and goodbye. This is the end of my life in this big Moroccan sea. I am from Senegal but have been living in Cape Verde for a year. Things are bad. I don't think I will come out of this alive. I need whoever finds me to send this money to my family. Please telephone my friend Ibrahima Drame." (Signed Diaw Sounkar Diemi).
2. Coffin Ship
The men’s bodies were found on board an unmarked yacht with no flag. The ship was of French design, twenty-feet long, white, and motorized. It was recently repaired. After being discovered in April by a local fisherman, the HMBS Trident was sent to investigate further. The eleven men died of starvation and dehydration.
It is thought that when the ship left harbor in Cape Verde, there were fifty men on board. Together, they paid a Spanish man, a mechanic based in the Canary Islands, 50,000 Euros for the journey. The men thought that the mechanic was going to sail the boat. At the last minute however, the Spaniard disappeared, and a Senegalese man took on the role of the skipper. Many men refused to board. According to El Pais, one man jumped off after it had already set sail and swam back to shore.
One hundred and thirty-five days later, the boat was spotted about seventy nautical miles from Ragged Point, one of the easternmost coasts of Barbados. It was towed to the port at Willoughby Fort in Bridgetown.
The bodies were found huddled in two piles in the cabin. They were dressed in colorful clothes, shorts and jerseys, when they died on the Atlantic. They had died slowly, and very painfully.
Their bodies were petrified by the sun, saltwater, and sea winds of the Atlantic. When the boat arrived at Willoughby Port, they were hauled to shore, wrapped in plastic bags, and taken to the morgue.
Authorities traced phone calls made on board, like the one made by Bouba Cisse from the Gambia to his cousin Abdou Karime in Portugal. Other relatives in Senegal and Spain received calls from the men before they boarded and during the early part of their voyage. Some of the men have been identified, and some parts of the story of their journey on have come to light.
3. The Weather
Eleven men died of dehydration on this unnamed boat. The bodies of Diaw Sounkar Diemi, Bouba Cisse, and others were preserved and desiccated by the Moroccan sea that engulfed them. The salt from the water, the sea-laden breeze, and the sun surrounded and then permeated their bodies.
The salt, the water, and the sun both destroyed and preserved the bodies of these eleven men huddled together in the cabin. But they are a small fraction of the forty-odd men they set off with who died and were washed overboard into the sea. Through this, those bodies become something else. The forces of the sea, its saltwater, wind, and sun corrugate and embalm them. They make the bodies a part of the ravages of the sea and connect them to the others not seen that fell into the ocean. The sea, a force, fossilizes the bodies of these men who died on board, destroying and preserving them. The force of the sea winds and weather is insidious and complicit in the transformation of these dead men into fossils of the sea. They have become a part of the archive of sea, understandable in part only through the sea.
The boat, without a name or flag, came to be known as a ghost ship, even a coffin ship in the news. The ship, rusted and aged with a history that has been obscured by its lack of designation, came into new life with its complicity in the lives and deaths of these eleven men. Like the slave ships whose route and ocean currents it followed, its cargo gives it its name. A ship whose life is conferred by death. A death ship, a coffin ship.
The death of these men, drifting across Atlantic currents, buffeted by sea winds and scorched by the sun, connects the boat, the bodies, and the sea as symptoms complicit with one another. The boat is a fossil, an extension of the bodies fossilized by the weather, covered in salt and sun.
Of course, the weather is not just an amalgamation of sea, wind, sun, and salt. It is ripped into by the mechanic who took the money of these fifty men and ran; by the machete that hacked the line to the towing boat; by the man who jumped overboard as the boat left Praia. The weather is the scaling up and trickling down of another set of forces that propels the boat away from Nouadhibou and along Atlantic currents. It cannot be separated from the turning away of the state, which forces men and women without prospects to board a ship like this, and that keeps these ships away from their destinations through force and neglect. The force of the weather is complicit with that of state power: the willful misdirection of its culpable and complicit gaze; the turning of blind eyes and deaf ears to boats in distress; the unfettered access given to vigilante boats that troll northern Mediterranean shores keeping migrant ships away; the willful disregard of recent and older histories that identify the origin of these exoduses in policies and military incursions made by the very countries that men and women in these boats are fleeing to.
The force of the weather is permeated with all of these threads that together corrode and get under the skin and into the hold of these bodies and this ship.
4. Retrograde Automatism
The corroding of bodies that confers life to the boat is a kind of futurist amalgamation of humans and machines gone retrograde, where the machine carries the weight of dissolution and death. Both ship and bodies carry traces of life and death. The sea wind and salt water are the catalyst and medium that confers contiguity onto both—a suspension between life and death; an animism and horror that can only make sense through the operation of state power as a force inextricable from the weather.
Franco “Bifo” Berardi describes how futurism, as a movement, was entranced with the machine as something outside of the laborer. Franco Berardi, After The Future (Stirling and Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 14 and 16.The machine was in front of the body and changed laborers’ behavior without changing their internal constitution. But now, he argues, the machine is inside of us. It is inextricable from what he calls the “bio-machine” of our social nervous system.
Bifo points out that Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto was published in 1909, the same year that Henry Ford initiated the first assembly line in Detroit. This is no coincidence, nor is, he states, the fact that the most fiery proponents of futurism were in the agrarian economies of Italy and Russia. The machine stood in front of the laborer, paving the way to an industrial future. Yet the machine is not in front of us any longer; it is inside of us. Our souls are on the factory floor. We are sped up from the inside out at the pace of an accelerated capitalism.
What would change if we considered the ubiquitous form of labor by illegalized migrants and the breaking-down coffin ship they drifted on across the Atlantic as one such machine? And what if we considered the compounding of ship and body as an extension of the idea that “the machine is inside of us” that is produced by the combined forces of the state and sea? The bodies and the boat entering into one another via the weather and ocean currents inverts futurist notions of automatism. Their amalgamation through the medium of the weather becomes an indictment of the relationship between humans and machines.
5. Present Future
The boat’s drift along the same route that bore slave ships from West Africa to Barbados centuries before forms another undercurrent of horror. One journey recapitulates the deaths meted out in another. The forces of the weather and the jettisons of enslaved men and women by ships’ captains, coupled with the laws that permitted them to do so, amplify the same desperate gestures of the men who died on board this ghost ship. Franz Fanon pitches this conflict more acutely in The Wretched of the Earth:
"The appearance of the settler has meant in terms of syncretism the death of the aboriginal society, cultural lethargy, and the petrification of individuals. For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler. This, then is the correspondence, term by term, between the two trains of reasoning."
Petrification, in this sense, means for the “native” to feel fear in the face of the power of the settler. But more importantly, petrification means to turn to stone, and this turning into stone is only measured when the settler turns into a decaying mass, into the earth as well, into a rotting corpse. This reckoning is where another life can arise again. The native here could be the migrant or the refugee, and the settler could be the colonizer or the arm of the state, and embedded within their material relations is the process of turning into stone, decaying into earth. A liminal but spaced space, inhabited by what Achille Mbembe calls the difference between two deaths: the living dead and the plain dead. Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15 (2003): 11–40.
On this ship, petrification can be read as the transformation of the bodies of these men by the salt, sea, and sun—their preservation and desiccation—but also as the boat coming into a life whose function is as a missive of death. Both ship and bodies hover between two deaths. This petrification is created both on and by the sea, with the same Manichean mechanics that end in death.
Something specific happens in this petrification that transforms the migrant body not only in its encounter with the face of the settler, but also in its desiccation that is connected to the corrosion of the coffin ship. This nautical petrification, intertwined with the hovering of bodies and boat between the living and plain dead, makes for a retrograde automation, a chain of events that confer life onto a ship or machine, and death onto the men, its particular, itinerant labor.
In the film Kempinski, director Neil Beloufa films four men in Mali’s capital Bamako at night. Illuminated by neon lights on the street and sometimes holding a neon tube in their hands, these men parody stereotypes about West African notions of “traditional” knowledge. Each man describes a futuristic scenario of his own invention, but narrates it in the present tense: a world where there is only one man left in a society of oxen that he married into; a world of vehicles treated as people in a kind of sentient camaraderie; a world of telepathic intimacy and instantaneous travel.
There is a devastating humor in the delivery of these stories, deadpan but also taunting, tongue in cheek, where the change into present tense dares the viewer to disbelieve them. You can see this in their faces. These forays into technical possibilities of the future are cast into the quotidian of the present. Who is invited to the man’s wedding to his ox-wife? What kind of mundane objects are made present through light-speed travel? Which day to day vehicles would one walk and converse with? The power of this kind of animation lies in its capacity to confront and undermine stereotypes of African knowledges and techne that inflates the stereotype and at the same time inverts it. It is a furious witty animism that can only follow petrification.
What makes this inversion possible is the temporal shift of the narrative; to tell stories of the future as if they are in the present. The issue of time—the future in the present becoming machine—forms the beginning of a vocabulary to build on the water. But how can the future be thought about in the context of the ghost ship? Can time be skewed to understand the petrification of these men’s bodies on the sea, their slow death, the recapitulation of the ship’s drift along the routes of the slave ships centuries ago? The present recapitulates the past, invoking of the futurist idealization of the machinic to make sense of the life and death of the bodies of the men on this boat.
6. On Shore
The tragedy of dying at sea, like that of the men found on the ship that is a coffin, turns bodies into something that is of land and sea. Forty-odd men fell overboard, or were washed into the sea after they died. Or maybe they were buried in the water by their companions who were still alive.
On the shore, the bodies of men and women who die at sea and are not found. They do not leave residues like those who die on land. They are marked, as Judith Quax would say, in her series of photographs of families of migrants who have been lost at sea, by “Presence in Absence.” Some families leave unchanged the rooms of their sons or daughters, sisters or brothers who have left and not returned. Cemeteries line the beaches and coasts of Senegal, from Dakar to Saint-Louis and even further north to the Mauritanian border. Some of the graves are empty, markers for bodies lost at sea, leaving nothing but an imprint on the soil.
There is another story in the Los Angeles Times about a man named Chamseddine Marzoug, a man in Zarzis, Tunisia who has taken to burying bodies of men and women who have washed up on the Tunisian shore while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The boats, mostly from Libya, are often plastic inflatable dinghies and buffeted by westward blowing winds that take them to Tunisian waters and to their deaths. They are mostly from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan.
Hobbling on an injured ankle, Marzoug tends to the cemetery that he has created for migrants who die at sea. He has buried 400 people in the past decade. Some of the graves are unmarked. Others are marked with the ID numbers that were written on bracelets tied around the wrists of each dead person and on the body bags they were wrapped in. Marzoug’s relationship to these dead people is an intimacy with how they died. He calls them his family.
"[Marzoug] keeps photos of the bodies he recovers on his cellphone, alongside photos of his children, grandchildren and elderly mother, who died this year. He pulled up the photo of a woman’s body found this year on a bed of brown seaweed, white as a statue and decapitated, likely during months in the sea. 'Even without heads, they are beautiful to me', he said. 'We can’t forget them'.” Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “‘I am their family.’ In Tunisia, one man's mission to bury the migrants who die at sea” Los Angeles Times, November 27, 2017
Marzoug’s choice to store the images of the dead and drowned men and women on his phone brings the dead into an array with the living as part of a family. Seeing this dead woman’s image as beautiful is part of the affective archive that bypasses sentimentality; a machine that is also made complicit in its bringing together of these images that he carries with him even as he limps through the graveyard.