Today we will look at the slave ship Zong.
On November 29, 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.
The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.
Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).
With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard; (one of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship) “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.”
This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.
When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.
There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.
After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.
While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.
Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.
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 judgment 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.
Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.
Nobody was ever prosecuted.
Thanks for your attention.