In November 1781, the captain and crew of the British slave ship Zong threw 133 African slaves overboard, killing them. The reason for this act of brutality was to claim insurance money.
The transatlantic slave trade was a system of human trafficking that began in the 15th century and lasted until the 19th century. Millions of Africans were forcibly taken from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas to work as slaves on plantations. The slave trade was a highly profitable business, and European countries such as Britain, Portugal, France, Spain, and the Netherlands were heavily involved in it.
The story of the Zong massacre began in 1781, when a Liverpool syndicate led by one of the city’s major traders in enslaved Africans, William Gregson, on a slaving voyage in the area of Cape Coast and Anamabu, bought an impounded ship previously owned by the Dutch and called Zorgue (‘care’ in Dutch).
There were already 244 enslaved Africans on board, and they became part of the transaction.
During the five months before the ship sailed, more Africans were bought and some captured in the area of Cape Coast and Accra (Ghana), and placed on board.
Like most slave ships, the Zong took on too many people for the size of the ship. The ship which was built to house about 193 persons left the western coast of Africa for Black River, Jamaica on 18 August 1781 with about 440 enslaved Africans, under the captaincy of the inexperienced Luke Collingwood.
The conditions on board the Zong were appalling. The slaves were packed into the ship’s hold, which was only five feet high and less than six feet wide. The slaves were chained together in pairs, and many of them were unable to stand upright or lie down. The ship was overcrowded, and there was a shortage of food and water. Many of the slaves fell ill and about 70 enslaved Africans died during the voyage.
Historical evidence indicates that the Zong veered off course near Haiti, losing time, before it got back on course for Jamaica.
By then, complaints of water shortage, illness and death among the crew, along with poor navigational and leadership decisions, all created a level of confusion aboard.
By November 1781, the Zong had been at sea for over two months. The ship was running low on water and food, and many of the slaves were sick and dying. The captain, Luke Collingwood, made the decision to throw all the sick and dying slaves overboard. The reason for this was that he believed that the slaves were not worth saving, and that it would be more profitable to claim the insurance money for their deaths.
If slaves died on the ship, ship workers would not receive redress from insurers. If the slaves were thrown from the ship in an attempt to “save other ship members and property”, a loss could be claimed with insurers.
The captain Luke Collingwood authorised the throwing of Africans overboard resulting in the brutal deaths of another 133 people.
Historical evidence mentioned that at 8 pm. on November 29, 1781, some 54 enslaved Africans, mainly women and children, were dragged from below deck, unshackled and shoved from the ship through the cabin window and into the open expanse of the ocean.
Two days later, on December 1, a further 42 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard, handcuffed and in irons, from the quarterdeck. A third batch was murdered later.
The Zong slave ship reached Jamaica in December 1781, and news of the massacre soon spread. The ship’s owners, Gregson, tried to claim the insurance money for the slaves who had been thrown overboard, but the insurance company refused to pay out. The case was taken to court, and the legal battle that followed was closely watched by abolitionists in Britain.
The court held that in some circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths. A jury also ruled in favor of the slave owners.
The publicity surrounding the Zong Massacre prompted William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, the highest court in the United Kingdom, to order a retrial. Mansfield presided and ruled in favor of the insurers. Mansfield denied further claims for insurance payment. He believed that the cargo had been poorly managed because the captain should have made an adequate allowance of water for each enslaved African.
After the case, an abolitionists known as Granville Sharp attempted to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners for killing the enslaved Africans but was unsuccessful.
The Solicitor General of the United Kingdom, Justice John Lee, refused to take up the criminal charges, claiming, “What is this claim that human beings have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder… The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”
Although the perpetrators of the zong massacre were never brought to justice, the case raised the profile of abolitionists such as Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano and attracted new converts such as Thomas Clarkson and Reverend John Ramsay. They, in turn, inspired William Wilberforce, who led the successful campaign in 1833 to have Parliament abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.