A low point in human history occurred today in 1781 when the crew of British slave ship Zong began to dump a total of 133 living human slaves overboard to die an “accidental death” and claim the loss on an insurance policy. Now WE know em
The slave ship was a 110 ton square stern ship captured by the British on February 10, 1781 with 244 slaves already on board.
The ship had originally been named Zorg (meaning “Care” in Dutch) by its owners, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie. The Zorg had operated as a slave ship based out of Middelburg, Netherlands and made its first transatlantic voyage to the coast of Surinam (in modern day South Africa) in 1777.
By February 26, 1781, the captured ship had arrived off the coast of Cape Coast Castle, in modern-day Ghana.
In early March of 1781, the ship was purchased on behalf of the Gregson Liverpool slave-trading syndicate and renamed “Zong.”
The merchant members of the Gregson syndicate were Edward Wilson, George Case, James Aspinall, and William, James and John Gregson.
William Gregson had had an interest in 50 slaving voyages between 1747 and 1780, and had been mayor of Liverpool in 1762. Vessels in which William Gregson had a financial stake in had taken 58,201 people from Africa as slaves.
As was common practice at the time, the slave syndicate took out insurance on the lives of its slaves. The insurers, another syndicate from Liverpool, underwrote the Zong and its current 244 slaves for up to £8000, approximately half the slaves’ potential market value.
The remaining risk was borne by the owners.
The Zong became the first command of Luke Collingwood, formerly a surgeon on the British slave ship William (also owned by the same slave syndicate that bought the Zong).
While Luke Collingwood lacked experience in navigation and command, it was the ship’s surgeons who were involved in selecting slaves for purchase in Africa, knowing that those they rejected were liable to be killed.
Sometimes these killings happened in the presence of the surgeon.
It is likely, therefore, that Collingwood had already witnessed the mass-murder of slaves and, as the historian Jeremy Krikler has commented, this may have prepared him psychologically to participate in the massacre which later occurred on the Zong.
The Zong had a 17-man crew when it left Africa, which was far too small to maintain adequate sanitary conditions on the ship.
Mariners willing to risk disease and slave rebellions on slave ships were difficult to recruit within Britain, and were even harder to find for a vessel captured from the Dutch off the coast of Africa. The Zong was manned with remnants of the previous Dutch crew and the crew of the now sister ship William, and with unemployed sailors from the settlements along the African coast.
The Zong’s only passenger, Robert Stubbs, was the former governor of Anomabu, a British fortification near Cape Coast Castle, who had been forced to leave the position after nine months.
The Middle Passage
The Zong sailed from Accra, the capital city of Ghana on August 18, 1781 after adding another 198 slaves aboard the ship.
The ship now totaled 442 slaves, more than it could safely transport.
A British slave ship of the period would carry around 193 slaves, and it was extremely unusual for a ship of the Zong’s relatively small size to carry so many.
In the 1780s, British-built ships typically carried 1.75 slaves per ton of the ship’s capacity; on the Zong, the ratio became four slaves per ton.
After taking on drinking water at São Tomé, the Zong began its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica on September 6th.
By the 18th or 19th of November the ship neared Tobago in the Caribbean, but failed to stop there to replenish its water supplies.
It is unclear who, if anyone, was in charge of the ship at this point.
The captain, Luke Collingwood, had been gravely ill for some time.
The man who would normally have replaced him, first mate James Kelsall, had been suspended from duty following an argument on November 14th.
Passenger Stubbs had captained a slave ship several decades earlier, and must have temporarily took over command of the Zong in Collingwood’s absence, despite not being a member of the vessel’s crew.
By the 27th or 28th of November, Jamaica was sighted at a distance of 27 nautical miles (31 miles), but was misidentified as the French colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola.
The Zong continued on its westward course, leaving Jamaica behind.
This mistake was only recognized when the ship was some 300 miles leeward of the island.
Overcrowding, malnutrition, accidents and disease had already killed several crew members and approximately 62 enslaved Africans.
First mate James Kelsall later claimed that there was only four days’ water remaining on the ship when the navigational error was discovered, with Jamaica presumed to be still 10–13 days away.
If the slaves died onshore, the Liverpool ship-owners would have no redress from their insurers. Similarly, if the slaves died a “natural death” (as the contemporary term put it) at sea, then insurance could not be claimed. But if some slaves were jettisoned in order to save the rest of the “cargo” or the ship itself, then a claim could be made under the notion of “general average”.
The ship’s insurance covered the loss of slaves at £30 a head.
Thus, on November 29, 1781, the crew assembled to consider a proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard.
54 women and children were immediately thrown through cabin windows into the sea.
Then a few days later on December 1st, 42 male slaves were also thrown overboard.
36 more slaves followed over the next few days.
Another ten slaves, in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers, threw themselves overboard.
Having heard the shrieks of the victims as they were thrown into the water, one slave requested that the remaining Africans be denied all food and drink rather than be thrown into the sea. This request was ignored by the crew.
On December 22, 1781, the Zong arrived at Black River, Jamaica, with 208 slaves alive, less than half the number on board when the ship left Africa.
These remaining slaves sold for an average price of £36 each.
Luke Collingwood died three days after the Zong reached Jamaica.
The owners of the Zong then made a claim to their insurers for the loss of 133 slaves.
They claimed that the slaves had been jettisoned because the ship did not have enough water to keep all the slaves alive for the rest of the voyage.
When the insurers refused to pay, the resulting court case held that in some circumstances the deliberate killing of slaves was legal, and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths.
However, this case was disputed because the ship had 420 imperial gallons of water left on board when the Zong arrived in Jamaica on December 22nd.
In an affidavit made by first mate Kelsall, it was reported that on December 1st, when 42 another slaves were thrown overboard, it rained heavily for more than a day, allowing six casks of water (sufficient for eleven days) to be collected.
1783 court proceedings
The dispute over the insurance claim was initially tried at the Guildhall in London on March 6, 1783, with the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, overseeing the trial before a jury.
The logbook of the Zong went missing before the hearings started; these legal proceedings provide almost all the surviving documentary evidence about the massacre.
The ship’s insurers claimed that the log had been deliberately destroyed, which the Gregson syndicate denied.
Almost all the surviving source material is of questionable reliability.
The two eyewitnesses who gave evidence, Robert Stubbs and James Kelsall, were strongly motivated to exonerate themselves from blame.
The jury found in favor of the Zong slave owners.
Then on March 19, 1783, Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, told the anti-slave-trade activist Granville Sharp of the events aboard the Zong, and Sharp sought legal advice on the following day about the possibility of prosecuting the ship’s crew for murder.
King’s Bench appeal
The insurers of the Zong applied to the Earl of Mansfield to have the previous verdict set aside, and for the case to be tried again.
A hearing was held at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall on May 21-22, 1783, before Mansfield, and two other King’s Bench judges, Mr Justice Buller and Mr Justice Willes.
The Solicitor General, John Lee, appeared on behalf of the Zong’s owners, as he had done previously in the Guildhall trial.
Granville Sharp now was also in attendance, as was the secretary he had employed to take a written record of the proceedings.
Summing up the verdict reached in the first trial, Mansfield declared that the jury:
had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board … The Question was, whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest, [and] the Jury were of opinion there was …
The only witness of the Zong massacre to appear at Westminster Hall was Robert Stubbs, although a written statement by James Kelsall was made available to the lawyers.
Stubbs claimed that there was “an absolute Necessity for throwing over the Negroes”, because the crew feared all the slaves would die if they did not throw some into the sea.
The insurers of the Zong argued that Collingwood had made “a Blunder and Mistake” in sailing beyond Jamaica, and that the slaves had been killed so their owners could claim compensation.
John Lee responded by saying that the slaves “perished just as a Cargo of Goods perished”, and were jettisoned for the greater good of the ship.
The insurers’ legal team replied that Lee’s argument could never justify the killing of innocent people, and that the actions of the Zong’s crew were nothing less than murder.
At the hearing it was revealed that heavy rain had fallen on the ship during the series of killings. This led Mansfield to order another trial, because the rainfall meant that the killing of the slaves after the water shortage had been eased could not be justified in terms of the greater necessity of saving the ship and the rest of its human cargo.
One of the justices in attendance also stated that the evidence they had heard invalidated the findings of the jury in the first trial, which had been told that the water shortage resulted from the poor condition of the ship brought on by unforeseen maritime conditions, rather than from errors committed by its captain.
Mansfield concluded that the insurers were not liable for losses resulting from errors committed by the Zong’s crew.
However, there is no evidence that a further trial ever occurred.
Despite Sharp’s efforts, nobody was prosecuted for the murder of the slaves.
Subsequent provisions included in the Slave Trade Acts of 1788 and 1794 limited the scope of insurance policies concerning slaves, rendering generalized phrases which promised to insure against “all other Perils, Losses, and Misfortunes” illegal.
Now, it is possible that the figures concerning the number of slaves killed, the amount of water which remained on the ship, and the distance beyond Jamaica which the Zong had mistakenly sailed are all inaccurate.
However, reports of the massacre stimulated the nascent abolitionist movement and became a powerful symbol of the horrors of the Middle Passage on slaves to the New World.
The massacre has also inspired several works of art and literature and was commemorated in 2007, the bicentenary of Britain’s abolition of the slave trade.
Now WE know em