Photo © Marc Brenner

Rockets and Blue Lights – Footnotes

Oct 22, 2020 | Footnotes | 0 comments

The Footnotes to our Rockets and Blue Lights episode explore the Turner paintings that partly inspired the play, the Zong massacre that inspired Turner, the ghosts that haunt the play, and the litany of victims that Thomas pays tribute to in his closing speech.

Turner’s Paintings and the Zong Massacre
JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship, or as it was first titled, Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and the Dying – Typhoon coming on was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1840. As Winsome mentioned it is now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Although by this time slavery had been outlawed in the British Empire, illegal trade was still going on and abolitionists also continued to campaign for it to be outlawed in the rest of the world. No doubt Turner intended to help raise awareness of this cause, as he created his painting to coincide with a conference of the British Anti-Slavery Society at which Prince Albert was scheduled to speak.

As Winsome noted in her preface to Rockets and Blue Lights, and we discussed during our conversation, the painting may have been based on the events of the Zong Massacre which were well known as a result of the prominent court case of 1783 which highlighted the iniquity of the insurance laws that classified enslaved people as no more than “cargo” on a ship. The facts and testimony of the case are shocking to read. The law of the time held that if enslaved people died a “natural death” at sea or onshore, then no compensation could be claimed. However a ship’s captain would be within the law to jettison part of his “cargo” in order to save the rest, and could claim insurance for its value. The “value” of an enslaved person was set at £30 per person! On this basis in the first trial the jury “had no doubt …that the Case of Slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard…The question was whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest?”  The crew had claimed that it had been necessary because there had not been enough fresh water to keep all of the people alive for the remainder of the voyage, but on appeal in the second trial new evidence was revealed that heavy rain had fallen on the second day of the killings and more people were thrown overboard even thereafter. Technically therefore Absolute Necessity could not be proved and the insurers were not required to pay up. The verdict never addressed the fact that innocent people were murdered.

The painting that gives Winsome’s play its title was also painted in 1840. Its full title is Rockets and Blue Lights (Close at Hand) to Warn Steamboats of Shoal, and it is now in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. It depicts a storm in an English harbour town, with flares exploding in the sky to alert ships to the location of shallow water. On the shore spectators look out to sea, perhaps waiting to know if their loved ones will return safely home, much as Lucy and Jess wait for news of Thomas in the play. In the play rockets and blue lights refer to the Navy sending warnings to a slave ship as they approach, acting as a police force to enforce the anti-slavery laws on the sea. Winsome refers to the contrast in colours between the two paintings: the blood red of the sunset in The Slave Ship and the bright blue in Rockets and Blue Lights. Is the blue the colour of hope, as it might have signalled saviour to those illegally enslaved on a ship caught by the Navy?


Winsome referenced the theory of ‘hauntology’ in an article she wrote about the challenges of representing traumatic historical events, which suggests that “the legacy of the past resonates within or haunts present day realities.” The structure of Rockets and Blue Lights which merges time periods and doubles characters serves to convey this sense of continuity and connectivity through time. As Lou says referring to the events of the past  “They think this is just history, but it isn’t” – for her it is very much present. The play is also full of literal hauntings: Turner sees the ghost of his dead mother in his studio and onboard ship;  Lou imagines a drowning woman coming to life in Turner’s painting; a hole opens in the floor of Turner’s studio to the hold of the ship, from which the ghost of the young slave Billie emerges; Meg appears from 1840 to speak with Lou in 2007, and when Thomas and the cast intone the names of black victims from history at the end of the play, their voices overlap each other “to create a brief echoing effect as though conjuring ghosts.” Perhaps to underline the play’s supernatural quality, Winsome has the actor Roy quote extensively from The Tempest, another story of shipwreck, where art creates a magical moral tale to put injustices in the world to right.


In Memoriam
In Thomas’s final speech in the play he challenges the white guard who points his gun at him, to “Pull your trigger. I am not afraid of death. I have lived and died ten million times. And I will live and live again.” As he does so he calls up the ghosts of those who have suffered the same oppression over history:

Yaa Asantewaa – a Queen mother of the Ashanti empire in what is now Ghana, who led a war against the colonial British in 1900.

Yvonne Ruddock – who died along with twelve other young black people in a fire at her home at her birthday party in New Cross in 1981. Arson was suspected.

David Oluwale – a homeless man who drowned in a river in Leeds in 1969 after being chased by police officers. It resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers for involvement in the death of a black person.

Sam Sharpe – who led a slave rebellion in Jamaica in 1832 and was executed.

Kelso Cochrane – an Antiguan who was murdered by white youths in Notting Hill in 1959.

Stephen Lawrence – the black British teenager who was murdered while waiting for a bus in southeast London in April 1993.

The litany of names reminded me of the ending of Tom Stoppard’s last play, Leopoldstrasse, which concludes with the recitation of names of his Jewish ancestors who perished in the Nazi death camps. This is similarly immensely moving and powerful. It is both a tribute and a statement of determination to survive and arrive at a new, free future.


Yaa Asantewaa

Yvonne Ruddock and the other victims of the New Cross fire

David Oluwale

Sam Sharpe

Kelso Cochrane

Stephen Lawrence

The Texts
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