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  • 11/29/2010

Today in History:

Zong Massacre: Slaves Thrown Overboard (1781)

slave ship

The Zong Massacre was the name given to the mass-killing of African slaves that took place in 1781 on the Zong, a British slave ship owned by James Gregson and colleagues in a Liverpool slave-trading firm.

The resulting court case, brought not by the authorities to bring a charge of mass-murder against the ship-owners, but a civil action by the ship-owners seeking compensation from the insurers to compensate the slave-traders for their lost "cargo," was a landmark in the battle against the African Slave Trade of the eighteenth century.

The term "Zong Massacre" was not the term universally used at the time. It was usually called "The Zong Affair," the term "massacre" being used mainly by those considered to be "dangerous radicals," as late eighteenth-century politics stood. At the time, the killing of slaves - individually or en masse - was not considered to be murder. In British law, the act was completely legal and could be freely admitted to the highest court in the land, without the perpetrators needing to worry of being prosecuted. The publicity over this case was, however, one of the factors that led to the legal situation being completely changed within a few decades.


The Slave Ship, J. M. W. Turner's representation of the massacreThe English ship Zong, out of Liverpool, had taken on more slaves than it could safely transport when it sailed from Africa en route to Jamaica on September 6, 1781. By November 29, 1781, this overcrowding, together with malnutrition and disease, had killed seven of the crew and approximately sixty African slaves. Captain Luke Collingwood decided to throw the remaining 133 sick slaves overboard. This took place over three days in the mid South Atlantic Ocean. Collingwood assumed that the slaves would be considered in law to be cargo, so the Liverpool ship-owners could claim the loss against an insurance policy:

"The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer."

Later, it was claimed that the slaves had been jettisoned because it was required "for the safety of the ship" as the ship did not have enough water to keep them alive for the rest of the voyage. This claim was later disproved as the ship had 420 gallons of water left when it arrived in Jamaica on December 22.

Captain Collingwood himself died from disease before the voyage ended.

slave ship

Legal caseThe ship's owners sued the insurers, demanding to be paid £30 for each slave. The case came to court twice in March 1783, during which Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield stated that there was "no doubt that (though it shocks one very much) the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard"  but ruled that the ship-owners could not claim insurance on the slaves because the lack of sufficient water demonstrated that the cargo had been badly managed.

No officers or crew were charged or prosecuted for the deliberate killing of 133 slaves. Indeed, the Solicitor General, John Lee, declared that a master could drown slaves without "a surmise of impropriety". He stated:

What is this claim that human people 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. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.

Abolitionist movementThe captain's scheme was exposed by Olaudah Equiano, a former slave, who gave the details of the incident to Granville Sharp, one of the first of the anti-slave-trade activists. The revelation of this massacre gave impetus to the abolition movement and created a public uproar against slavery.

Two famous activists that emerged from the Zong Massacre were Thomas Clarkson, who wrote an "Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species", and James Ramsay, who wrote an "Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the Sugar Colonies".

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com

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