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A replica of the Zong at Tower Bridge during commemoration of the 200th anniversary of abolition in 2007.

The Zong Massacre was a mass-killing of African slaves that took place on November 29th, 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 as a civil action by the ship-owners seeking compensation from the insurers for the slave-traders' lost "cargo", was a landmark in the battle against the African slave trade of the eighteenth century.

The term "Zong Massacre" was not 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.[citation needed]At the time, the killing of slaves—individually or en masse—was not considered to be murder, at least legally. In English law, the act was completely legal and could be freely admitted to the highest court in the land, without danger of prosecution.[citation needed] 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 massacre

The ship Zong, (originally named Zorg (tr. Care) by the Dutch, before being captured by the British) out of Liverpool, had taken on more slaves than it could safely transport when it sailed from Africa en route to Jamaica on 6 September 1781. By 29 November, this overcrowding, together with malnutrition and disease, had killed seven of the crew and approximately sixty enslaved Africans. With the journey prolonged by contrary winds and inept navigation, Captain Luke Collingwood had an increasing number of the dead and dying in his cargo hold. If he delivered them and they died onshore the Liverpool ship-owners would have no redress; but if they died at sea they were covered by the ship's insurance. As, in law, the slaves would be considered cargo, the "jettison clause" covered their loss at £30 a head.

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.[1]

Collingwood called his officers and proposed that the sick should be thrown overboard. Although the First Mate James Kelsall[2] initially disagreed, the plan was agreed, and so, over three days in the mid Atlantic Ocean, 122 sick slaves went over the side: 54 on 29 November, 42 on 30 November and 26 on 1 December. Another ten, in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers, threw themselves overboard and, in the words of a contemporary account, "leaping into the sea, felt a momentary triumph in the embrace of death."[3][4]

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 22 December.

Legal case

The ship's owners filed their insurance claim, but the insurers disputed it, backed by the evidence of the first mate. In this first court case, even with the first mate's testimony – the ship had plenty of water, Jamaica was near – the court found for Collingwood and the owners. The insurers appealed. It is at this point that Granville Sharp, one of the first of the anti-slave-trade activists, enters the story. He was visited on 19 March 1783 by Olaudah Equiano, a famous freed slave and later to be the author of a successful autobiography, and told of the events aboard the Zong. Sharp immediately became involved in the court case, again presided over by Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield,[3] who a decade earlier, in a previous action brought to court by Sharp, had held in Somersett's Case that slavery was unlawful in England. The Solicitor General for England and Wales, Mr. John Lee notoriously declared that "the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard"[5] but Lord Mansfield 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.[citation needed]

Criminal prosecution

No officers or crew were charged or prosecuted for the deliberate killing of 122 slaves. The Solicitor General, John Lee, declared that a master could drown slaves without "a surmise of impropriety".[5] 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 wood had been thrown overboard.[6]

Sharp's attempts to mount a prosecution for murder never got off the ground.[3]

Effect on the Abolitionist movement

Two notable activists who were inspired by 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".

Zong Massacre in popular culture

M. NourbeSe Philip's 2008 poetry book, Zong!, is based on the events surrounding the massacre. Dramatized readings of this poem cycle were presented at Harbourfront in Toronto as part of rock.paper.sistahz in 2006 and upcoming performances are planned by urban ink in Vancouver.[7]

A replica of the Zong was sailed to Tower Bridge in London in March 2007 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 1807; the British Empire abolished the practice of slavery on 31 July 1833.

The first episode of Series 2 of the television programme Garrow's Law is loosely based on the legal events arising from the Zong Massacre.[8] The historical William Garrow did not actually take part in the case, though he would certainly have been aware of it; Garrow was only called to the bar in 1783. Because the captain died shortly after the incident, his appearance in court for fraud is likewise fictional.[9]


Further reading

  • Gregson v. Gilbert (1783), 3 Dougl 232; 99 ER 629
  • Baucom, Ian (2005). Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History. Durham: Duke University Press. ISBN 0822335581.
  • 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, Anita (2008). "'A Limited Sort of Property': History, Memory and the Slave Ship Zong". Slavery & Abolition 29 (2): 265–277. doi:10.1080/01440390802027913.
  • Shyllon, F. O. (1974). Black Slaves in Britain. London: Oxford University Press.
  • 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.

External links

Template:Use British English

el:Σφαγή του Ζονγκ he:הטבח בספינת העבדים זונג no:Zongmassakren

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