Balancing Structures

Ballast: Objects used to weigh down, provide stability or steady structures

On a cold January day I was curled up with a blue and white book when the word ‘ballast’ jumped off the page and took root in my mind. The author mentioned that blue and white porcelain, in the form of tea cups, plates, serving dishes and vases, was used as ballast on East India Company ships which were transporting tea from China to England in the 1700s. The hand painted blue and white porcelain was heavy and impervious to water, unlike the delicate and expensive tea, which took centre stage. From that cold January day the word ballast seemed to be everywhere. Just like when you’re pregnant for the first time and you start noticing other pregnant women everywhere! Ballast resurfaced when reading about American transport ships returning from Europe during WW2. These ships transported supplies and souls to the shores of Europe. On their voyage home, back to America, the empty supply ships were ballasted with the rubble of the bombed cities of Britain, particularly Bristol. This rubble was used in building works projects in New York City. Hauntingly ballast would surface again when reading an article, Ship’s Ballast by Lolita Buckner Inness, an article that focuses on the significance of ballast in international law and the slave trade, when the line between human being and thing were conflated. Ballast comprised of seeds, stones, fresh water and food were an identifying feature of slaver ships. Another example was ships carrying cottonworked by enslaved Africans in Charleston, South Carolina that were sent to Liverpool, England.  The return journey of the cotton ships to America, were ballasted with the bodies of Irishmen escaping the Great Famine. After that cold January I kept thinking about the word ballast. As spring arrived and our garden began to flourish, I began to see ballast in my life on dry land. The sugar jar in our kitchen cabinet. The blue and white vase on our table. The cotton buds still on their branches at the flower shop. The flowers blooming in our garden.  All objects who’s seeds did not arrive on the wing of a bird, but in the hulls of ships. Over time my thoughts turned to myself and my tribe. A woman forged in America who’s roots reside in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Finland, Germany and Nigeria. Like the blue and white pottery buried in the hulls of those East India Company ships so long ago, like the flowers in our garden here in England, like my ancestors arriving in America, like the journey of so many seeds and souls over centuries that did not arrive on the wing of a bird but in the hull of a ship.  

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