The Zong massacre was the killing of approximately 142 enslaved Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in the days following 29 November 1781.[note 1] The Zong was owned by a Liverpool slave-trading syndicate that had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves. When the ship ran low on water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw some of the slaves into the sea to drown. The owners of the Zong made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves. When the insurers refused to pay, the resulting court cases held that in some circumstances the deliberate killing of slaves was legal, and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves' deaths.
The hearings brought the massacre to the attention of the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, who tried unsuccessfully to have the ship's crew prosecuted for murder. Reports of the massacre stimulated the nascent abolitionist movement and became a powerful symbol of the horrors of the Middle Passage of 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.
- 1 The Zong
- 2 The Middle Passage
- 3 Legal proceedings
- 4 Impact on the abolitionist movement
- 5 In modern culture
- 6 Notes and references
- 7 Bibliography
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
The Zong had originally been named Zorg (meaning "Care" in Dutch) by its owners, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie. It operated as a slave ship based in Middelburg, and had made a successful voyage to the coast of Surinam in 1777. The Zong was a "square stern ship" of 110 tons burden. It was captured by a British 16-gun ship named Alert on 10 February 1781. By 26 February, the Alert and Zong had arrived at Cape Coast Castle, in modern-day Ghana.
In early March 1781, the Zong was purchased by the master of the William, on behalf of a syndicate of Liverpool merchants. The members of the 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. By the end of his life, vessels in which he had a financial stake had taken 58,201 people from Africa.
The Zong was paid for with bills of exchange, and the 244 slaves already on board were part of the transaction. The ship was not insured until after it had started its voyage. The insurers, a syndicate from Liverpool, underwrote the ship and slaves for up to £8000, approximately half the slaves' potential market value. The remaining risk was borne by the owners.
The Zong was the first command of Luke Collingwood, formerly the surgeon on the William. While 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 occurred on the Zong. The Zong's first mate was James Kelsall, who had also served on the William. The vessel'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. Witness statements gathered by the African Committee accused him of being a semi-literate drunkard who mismanaged the slave-trading activities of the fort.
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 William, and with unemployed sailors from the settlements along the African coast.
The Middle Passage
The Zong had taken on more slaves than it could safely transport when it sailed from Accra with 442 slaves on 18 August 1781. In the 1780s, British-built ships typically carried 1.75 slaves per ton of the ship's capacity; on the Zong, the ratio was four per ton. 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.
After taking on drinking water at São Tomé, the Zong began its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica on 6 September. On 18 or 19 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 14 November. Robert Stubbs had captained a slave ship several decades earlier, and he temporarily commanded the Zong in Collingwood's absence, despite not being a member of the vessel's crew. According to James Walvin, the breakdown of the command structure on the ship might explain why subsequent navigational errors were committed, and why checks on supplies of drinking water were not made.
On 27 or 28 November, Jamaica was sighted at a distance of 27 nautical miles (50 km; 31 mi), 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 recognised when the ship was 300 miles (480 km) leeward of the island.
Overcrowding, malnutrition, accidents and disease had already killed several mariners and approximately 62 enslaved Africans. James Kelsall later claimed that there was only four days' water remaining on the ship when the navigational error was discovered, with Jamaica 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.
On 29 November, the crew assembled to consider the proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard. James Kelsall later claimed that he had disagreed with the plan at first, but it was soon unanimously agreed. On 29 November, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea. On 1 December, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard; 36 slaves followed in the next few days. Another ten, 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. The account of the King's Bench trial reports that one slave managed to climb back onto the ship.
It was subsequently 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. This claim was later disputed, as the ship had 420 imperial gallons (1,900 l) of water left when it arrived in Jamaica on 22 December. In an affidavit made by Kelsall it was reported that on 1 December, when 42 slaves were killed, it rained heavily for more than a day, allowing six casks of water (sufficient for eleven days) to be collected.
Subsequent history of the Zong
On 22 December 1781, the Zong arrived at Black River, Jamaica, with 208 slaves on board, less than half the number taken from Africa. The slaves sold for an average price of £36 each. The legality of the Zong's capture from the Dutch was confirmed by the Jamaican Vice-Admiralty court, and the vessel was renamed Richard of Jamaica. Luke Collingwood died three days after the Zong reached Jamaica, and thus was unable to testify at the 1783 court proceedings.
When the news of the Zong's voyage reached England, the ship's owners claimed compensation from their insurers for the loss of the slaves. The insurers refused to honour the claim, and were taken to court by the Liverpool syndicate. The logbook of the Zong went missing before the hearings started; the legal proceedings provide almost all the 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.[note 2] 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.
Legal proceedings began when the insurers refused to compensate the owners of the Zong. The dispute was initially tried at the Guildhall in London on 6 March 1783, with the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, overseeing the trial before a jury. Mansfield was previously the judge in Somersett's Case in 1772, which concerned the legality of keeping slaves in England.
Robert Stubbs was the only witness in the first Zong trial, and the jury found in favour of the owners. On 19 March 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 21–22 May 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 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. They alleged that Collingwood did this because he did not want his first voyage as a slave ship captain to be unprofitable. 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. As James Walvin has argued, it is possible that Granville Sharp directly influenced the strategy that the insurers' legal team employed.
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.
There is no evidence that a further trial 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 generalised phrases which promised to insure against "all other Perils, Losses, and Misfortunes" illegal. A similar phrase in the Zong's insurance policy had been highlighted by the slave owners' representatives at the King's Bench hearing. A summary of the appeal was eventually published in the nominate reports prepared from the contemporaneous manuscript notes of Sylvester Douglas, Baron Glenbervie and others, and published in 1831 as Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug. KB 232.[note 3]
Jeremy Krikler has argued that Mansfield wanted to ensure that commercial law remained as helpful to Britain's overseas trade as possible, and as a consequence was keen to uphold the principle of "general average", even in relation to the killing of humans. This principle holds that a captain who jettisons part of his cargo in order to save the rest can claim for the loss from his insurers. Finding in favour of the insurers would, therefore, have greatly undermined this idea. The revelation that it had rained heavily before the killings had finished enabled Mansfield to order a retrial while leaving the notion of "general average" intact. He emphasised that the massacre would have been legally justified and the owners' insurance claim would have been valid had the water shortage not arisen from mistakes made by the captain.
In reaching these conclusions, Krikler comments that Mansfield ignored the ruling of his predecessor, Matthew Hale, that the killing of innocents in the name of self-preservation was unlawful. This ruling was to prove important a century later in R v Dudley and Stephens, which also concerned the justifiability of acts of murder at sea. Mansfield also did not acknowledge another important legal principle—that no insurance claim can be legal if it arose from an illegal act.
Impact on the abolitionist movement
Granville Sharp campaigned actively to raise awareness of the massacre, writing letters to newspapers, the Lords Commissioners of Admiralty, and the Prime Minister (the Duke of Portland). Neither Portland nor the Admiralty sent him a reply. The first Zong trial in March 1783 was only reported by a single London newspaper, and very little about the massacre appeared in print before 1787. Moreover, the newspaper article in March 1783 represented the first public report of the massacre, appearing almost 18 months after the event.
Despite these setbacks, Sharp's efforts did have some success. In April 1783 he sent an account of the Zong massacre to William Dillwyn, a Quaker, who had asked to see evidence which was critical of the slave trade. The London Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends decided shortly after to begin campaigning against slavery, and a petition signed by 273 Quakers was submitted to parliament in July 1783. Sharp also sent letters to Anglican bishops and clergymen, and to those already sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.
The immediate impact of the Zong massacre on public opinion was very limited, demonstrating—as the historian of abolitionism Seymour Drescher has noted—the challenge that the early abolitionists faced. But following Sharp's efforts, the Zong massacre became an important topic in abolitionist literature, and the massacre was discussed by Thomas Clarkson, Ottobah Cugoano, James Ramsay and John Newton. These accounts often omitted the names of the ship and its captain, thereby creating, in the words of Srividhya Swaminathan, "a portrait of abuse that could be mapped onto any ship in the Middle Passage". The Zong killings offered a powerful example of the horrors of the slave trade that stimulated the development of the abolitionist movement in Britain, which dramatically expanded in size and influence in the late 1780s.
Descriptions of the massacre on the Zong continued to appear in abolitionist literature in the 19th century. In 1839, Thomas Clarkson published his History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, which included an account of the Zong killings. Clarkson's book had an important influence on the artist J. M. W. Turner, who displayed a painting at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1840 entitled The Slave Ship. The painting depicts a vessel from which a number of manacled slaves have been thrown into the sea to be devoured by sharks. Some of the details in the painting, such as the shackles worn by the slaves, appear to have been directly influenced by the illustrations in Clarkson's book. The painting appeared at an important moment in the ongoing movement to abolish slavery worldwide, with the Royal Academy exhibition opening one month before the first World Anti-Slavery Convention met in London. The painting was admired by its owner, John Ruskin, and has been described by the critic Marcus Wood as one of the few truly great depictions of the Atlantic slave trade in Western art.
In modern culture
The Zong has inspired several works of literature. Fred D'Aguiar's novel Feeding the Ghosts (1997) tells the story of an enslaved African who survives being thrown overboard from the Zong. In the novel, the journal of the slave—Mintah—is lost, unlike that of Granville Sharp. According to the cultural historian Anita Rupprecht, this signifies the silencing of African voices about the massacre. M. NourbeSe Philip's 2008 poetry book, Zong!, is based on the events surrounding the massacre, and uses the account of the King's Bench hearing as its source. Margaret Busby's play An African Cargo, staged by Nitro theatre company at Greenwich Theatre in 2007, dealt with the massacre and the 1783 trials.
Episode 1 of the second series of the television programme Garrow's Law is loosely based on the legal events arising from the massacre. The historical William Garrow did not take part in the case, and because the Zong's captain died shortly after arriving in Jamaica, his appearance in court for fraud is likewise fictional.
2007 abolition commemorations
In 2007 a memorial stone was erected at Black River, Jamaica, near where the Zong would have landed. A sailing ship representing Zong was sailed to Tower Bridge in London in March 2007 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, at a cost of £300,000. The vessel housed depictions of the Zong massacre and the slave trade. It was accompanied by HMS Northumberland, with an exhibition on board commemorating the Royal Navy's role in the suppression of the slave trade after 1807.
Notes and references
- The exact number of deaths is unknown, but James Kelsall (the Zong's first mate) later said that "the outside number of drowned amounted to 142 in the whole" (quoted in Lewis 2007, p. 364).
- Stubbs gave evidence in court; Kelsall produced a sworn affidavit in the Exchequer proceedings initiated by the insurers (Walvin 2011, pp. 85, 155).
- Reprinted in the English Reports in the early 20th century as  EngR 85, 99 E.R. 629 - see CommonLII, PDF.
- Burroughs 2010, p. 106.
- Webster 2007, p. 287.
- Lewis 2007, p. 365.
- Lewis 2007, p. 359.
- Lewis 2007, p. 360.
- Walvin 2011, p. 217.
- Lewis 2007, p. 358.
- Walvin 2011, p. 57.
- Lewis 2007, p. 361.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 70–1.
- Krikler 2007, p. 31.
- Krikler 2012, p. 409.
- Walvin 2011, p. 52.
- Lewis 2007, pp. 359–60.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 76–87.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 82–3.
- Krikler 2012, p. 411.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 45–8.
- Walvin 2011, p. 69.
- Walvin 2011, p. 27.
- Webster 2007, p. 289.
- Lewis 2007, pp. 362–3.
- Walvin 2011, p. 90.
- Walvin 2011, p. 87.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 77, 88.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 89–90.
- Lewis 2007, p. 363.
- Walvin 2011, p. 92.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 89, 97.
- Oldham 2007, p. 299.
- Webster 2007, p. 291.
- Weisbord 1969, p. 562.
- Walvin 2011, p. 97.
- Lewis 2007, p. 364.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 98, 157–8.
- Rupprecht 2008, p. 268.
- Lewis 2007, p. 366.
- Webster 2007, p. 288.
- "William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, by John Singleton Copley". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 102–3.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 85–7, 140–1.
- Walvin 2011, p. 95.
- Krikler 2007, p. 39.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 103, 139, 142.
- Lovejoy 2006, pp. 337, 344.
- Walvin 2011, p. 164.
- Lewis 2007, pp. 365–6.
- Walvin 2011, p. 138.
- Weisbord 1969, p. 563.
- Walvin 2011, p. 139.
- Walvin 2011, p. 153.
- Krikler 2007, p. 36.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 144, 155.
- Walvin 2011, p. 144.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 144–5.
- Walvin 2011, p. 146.
- Krikler 2007, pp. 36–8.
- Walvin 2011, p. 155.
- Oldham 2007, pp. 313–4.
- Krikler 2007, p. 38.
- Krikler 2007, p. 37.
- Weisbord 1969, p. 564.
- Walvin 2011, p. 167.
- Oldham 2007, pp. 302, 313.
- Henry Roscoe, ed. (1831). Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King's Bench 3. London. pp. 232–235.
- Krikler 2007, pp. 32–3, 36–8, 42.
- Krikler 2007, p. 39.
- Krikler 2007, pp. 42–3.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 483.
- Weisbord 1969, pp. 565–7.
- Rupprecht, "A Very Uncommon Case" (2007), p. 336.
- Drescher 2012, pp. 575–6.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 485.
- Rupprecht, "A Very Uncommon Case" (2007), pp. 336–7.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 170–1.
- Lovejoy 2006, p. 337.
- Swaminathan 2010, pp. 483–4.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 484.
- Rupprecht, "Excessive memories" (2007), p. 14.
- Walvin 2011, pp. 176–9.
- Rupprecht, "A Very Uncommon Case" (2007), pp. 330–1.
- Walvin 2011, p. 10.
- Boime 1990, p. 36.
- Walvin 2011, p. 6.
- Boime 1990, p. 34.
- Wood 2000, p. 41.
- "Black Plays Archive". The National Theatre. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
- BBC "Garrow's Law". BBC. Retrieved 28 December 2012.
- Mark Pallis (12 November 2010). "TV & Radio Blog: Law draws from real-life court dramas". The Guardian. Retrieved 19 November 2010.
- Walvin 2011, p. 207.
- Rupprecht 2008, p. 266.
- Boime, Albert (1990). "Turner's Slave Ship: The Victims of Empire". Turner Studies 10 (1): 34–43.
- Burroughs, R. (2010). "Eyes on the Prize: Journeys in Slave Ships Taken as Prizes by the Royal Navy". Slavery & Abolition 31 (1): 99–115. doi:10.1080/01440390903481688.
- Drescher, S. (2012). "The Shocking Birth of British Abolitionism". Slavery & Abolition 33 (4): 571–593. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2011.644070.
- Krikler, Jeremy (2007). "The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice". History Workshop Journal 64 (1): 29–47. doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm035.
- Krikler, Jeremy (2012). "A Chain of Murder in the Slave Trade: A Wider Context of the Zong Massacre". International Review of Social History 57 (3): 393–415. doi:10.1017/S0020859012000491.
- Lewis, A. (2007). "Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology". Journal of Legal History 28 (3): 357–370. doi:10.1080/01440360701698551.
- Lovejoy, P. E. (2006). "Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African". Slavery & Abolition 27 (3): 317–347. doi:10.1080/01440390601014302.
- Oldham, James (2007). "Insurance Litigation Involving the Zong and Other British Slave Ships, 1780–1807". Journal of Legal History 28 (3): 299–318. doi:10.1080/01440360701698437.
- Rupprecht, A. (2007). "'A Very Uncommon Case': Representations of the Zong and the British Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade". Journal of Legal History 28 (3): 329–346. doi:10.1080/01440360701698494.
- Rupprecht, A. (2007). "Excessive Memories: Slavery, Insurance and Resistance". History Workshop Journal 64 (1): 6–28. doi:10.1093/hwj/dbm033.
- Rupprecht, Anita (2008). "'A Limited Sort of Property': History, Memory and the Slave Ship Zong". Slavery & Abolition 29 (2): 265–277. doi:10.1080/01440390802027913.
- Swaminathan, S. (2010). "Reporting Atrocities: A Comparison of the Zong and the Trial of Captain John Kimber". Slavery & Abolition 31 (4): 483–499. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2010.521336.
- Walvin, James (2011). The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12555-9.
- Webster, Jane (2007). "The Zong in the Context of the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade". Journal of Legal History 28 (3): 285–298. doi:10.1080/01440360701698403.
- Weisbord, Robert (August 1969). "The case of the slave-ship Zong, 1783". History Today 19 (8): 561–567.
- Wood, Marcus (2000). Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-5446-4.
- Account of Gregson v. Gilbert in Henry Roscoe, ed. (1831). Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of King's Bench 3. London. pp. 232–235.
- Baucom, Ian (2005). Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-3558-1.
- Hoare, Prince (1820). Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq.. London: Henry Colburn & Co.