The Long Hunger Strike (Against Slavery)

These posts are difficult to write and I’m sure they are difficult to read. By measuring the time taken to write–or to read–it is possible enter the symbolic world created by the hunger strike, a world in which existence matters. It is the force of the statement made by the strike that enables this fragmentary sliver of participation. It is their gift to those in solidarity, the hospitality of those utterly without resource. Like all gifts, it invokes a response, the taking of the time to feel for an instant the stakes of their action.

For a hunger strike both compresses and expands time. Every moment without sustenance is freighted with meaning and, after the first days, haunted with danger.  And yet it also makes things visible. It opens the understanding of the long hunger strike from Atlantic slavery, to British imperialism, women’s suffrage and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

The long hunger strike is interwoven with British coloniality, from slavery to Ireland, the women’s suffrage struggle, India and the former British mandate of Palestine. This pattern stems from the British practice of using regulated hunger as a weapon, which was then turned against them by the enslaved and colonized.

the long hunger strike

The long hunger strike turns the state weapon of hunger against itself. It changes the terms of the encounter between the state regime and the body of those Fanon called les damnés, the damned–those who have no voice that the state can hear. By risking life, the damned reclaim dignity and in so doing make themselves heard. This is not a statement in the manner of a politician proposing a settlement, or a philosopher formulating a maxim. It is one that is felt within the body, at a molecular level. It is nonetheless articulate. It enacts the right to exist through the self-willed challenge to life.

The power to keep people in hunger of all kinds is a tool of coloniality, the transhistorical expansion of colonial domination and its continued effects. Whereas, according to Nelson Maldonando Torres,

decoloniality refers to efforts at rehumanizing the world

Humans have the right to exist, so they share food and offer hospitality to each other. They know that living together is the only way that humans may live and the only way to avoid ge(n)ocide. Dignity is the right to exist. If it is refused, people strike.

Slavery and the hunger strike

For Marcus Rediker, the historian of slavery,

The Atlantic slave trade was, in many senses, a four-hundred-year hunger strike.

In Central and West Africa, a politics of “eating” was central to social ordering. As Africanist Wyatt McGaffey has summarized it

An ordered society is one in which ‘eating,’ both literal and metaphorical is properly distributed

Eating is both supplying food and creating conditions in which people, animals and spirits alike can thrive. A slave ship was very obviously not such a place. Many captive Africans refused to eat.  In 1727 a man refused to eat on board the Loyal George, causing its captain to torture and kill him, whereupon all the Africans rose in revolt. Similar violence on the ship City of London caused all the 377 Africans on board to go on hunger strike in 1730. A Fante man (name unknown) undertook a fatal hunger strike on board the Brooks, the ship famously drawn by abolitionists. The little Black stick figures were people, who had a politics and acted on it.

HMS Brooks, slave ship

As a result, the slavers resorted to force feeding, using a metal device called the speculum oris to force open African hunger strikers’ mouths. As the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson reported in 1808:

the slaves were frequently so sulky, as to shut their mouths against all sustenance, and this with a determination to die; and that it was necessary their mouths should be forced open to throw in nutriment, that they who had purchased them might incur no loss by their death.

Speculum oris to open the mouth of a hunger striker, c.1850

It rarely worked (if by that we mean “kept the captive alive”) but it perhaps deterred others. Many more “returned to Africa” by means of their hunger strikes.

the suffragettes

The same tool was used against the Suffragettes, when they undertook hunger strikes in British prisons. In July 1909, the artist Marion Wallace-Dunlop was imprisoned for stamping a slogan on the walls of Parliament. She refused to eat, declaring

I claim the right recognized by all civilized nations that a person imprisoned for a political offence should have first-division treatment; and as a matter of principle, not only for my own sake but for the sake of others who may come after me, I am now refusing all food until this matter is settled 

She was, in short, on dignity strike. “First division” treatment was a provision of the 1898 Prison Act, whereby the prisoner would not be subjected to a month of solitary confinement, or have to wear prison dress. They were allowed visits and reading materials. “Second” and “Third” division prisoners were allowed none of these things and had to maintain silence at all times, or else be placed on bread-and-water diet.

As the writer Oscar Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour, put it in a letter to the Daily Chronicle in 1898, there were “three permanent punishments authorised by law in English prisons”: hunger, insomnia, and disease. The hunger striker in British prisons, like those in the slave ships before them, turned the state’s weapons against itself.

For this presumption, they paid a terrible price. Using the speculum oris, prison administrators force fed the Suffragettes, especially those from the working class. Sylvia Pankhurst, arrested in 1913 for breaking a window as part of the Suffragette escalation of the period, described how she was force fed after a hunger strike of only three days:

I felt a steel instrument pressing against my gums, cutting into the flesh, forcing its way in. Then it gradually prised my jaws apart as they turned a screw. It felt like having my teeth drawn; but I resisted—I resisted. I held my poor bleeding gums down on the steel with all my strength. Soon they were trying to force the india-rubber tube down my throat. I was struggling wildly, trying to tighten the muscles and to keep my throat closed up. They got the tube down, I suppose, though I was unconscious of anything but a mad revolt of struggling, for at last I heard them say, “That’s all”; and I vomited as the tube came up. ….But infinitely worse than any pain was the sense of degradation, the sense that the very fight that one made against the repeated outrage was shattering one’s nerves and breaking down one’s self-control.

Force feeding was also rape. Sometimes the prison authorities tried to make this anatomically specific, by inserting food into women’s vaginas and rectums. The women called it “violation.”

the palestinian dignity strike day 35

The logic of colonial domination continues in the former British mandate of Palestine today. 33% of the Palestinian population are what the UN call “food insecure,” meaning threatened by hunger. This hunger is unevenly experienced: 57% of those living in Gaza suffer it, as do 19% of those living in the West Bank. An outside visitor to Palestine, like myself, would be hard put to document this suffering because Palestinians are so committed to hospitality. We visited a village demolished over 100 times by Israeli police, reduced to only two tents, where our hosts produced a delicious and generous lunch, quite unasked and utterly not to be refused.

Within the Israeli prison system, food supply is a consistent problem. Families are not allowed to bring in food and, according to a 2016 report by Addameer, “the quality of the food and the quantity has decreased dramatically” since 2011. Not least, the fall in quality is due to the fact that Israeli convicts prepare the food for Palestinian prisoners. As a result, prisoners rely on a privatized and expensive canteen, forcing them to participate in the prison labor system. Prisoners spend an average $111 on food per month, which is “shopped” and cooked collectively at a mark up of over 20% from outside shops. The Israeli Prison Service makes over $30 million a year from this system.

Like the enslaved and the disenfranchised women before them, the Palestinians are turning the system’s withholding of food into a means to reclaim dignity. So it is denied to them in other ways. Far-right activists held a barbecue outside a prison, taunting the prisoners with the smell of food, just as British prison authorities left eggs, bread, milk and chops in the cells of Suffragettes. The prison service released a video purporting to show Marwan Barghouti eating a candy bar after more than two weeks of hunger strike. If he had done, he would have vomited it immediately. No media bothered to mention that.

in solidarity#dignitystrike #day35