22 May 1783
On this day in 1783, Lord Mansfied, the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, issued his verdict on the case of 132 men, women and children thrown overboard from a British owned slave ship, the Zong, on 29 November 1871. It was one of many brutal crimes committed against the millions of slaves who were victims of Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. After the first few had been murdered, the other slaves hearing the screams of the drowning must have known the terrible fate of those being led up in chains on to the deck.
Despite, a heavy rainfall the night before, the ship’s owners claimed that the ship had run short of drinking water, though they acknowledged it was to their advantage for the crew to kill them so they could claim on insurance. Their claim was challenged in court by the insurers. The only witness who was called to give evidence was the ship’s only passenger, Robert Stubbs. He argued that the decision to ‘jettison’ the slaves was taken ‘from the necessity he (the ship’s captain Luke Collingwood) was under to save the rest,’ or as the shipowners’ legal representative Solicitor General John Lee put it, the company’s property had been cast into the Caribbean ‘for the preservation of the Residue.’ The murdered Africans were mere items of merchandise, and ‘perished just as a cargo of goods perished.’1
The witnesses’ claims were difficult to disprove, since the ship’s logbook, a detailed account of its position, movements, the weather, supplies and any important occurrences on board, had gone missing sometime after its arrival in Jamaica. So any formal record regarding the ‘loss’ of the slave cargo had disappeared. The insurers, nevertheless, reasoned that the killings could be entirely attributed to human error and the navigation mistake which caused the ship to run short of drinking water. They also argued that the Africans were just as entitled to water as the Captain and his white crew and that throwing them overboard was an outrage ‘that shocks humanity.’2
Mansfield conceded the first point and ruled that due to navigational and other errors, the insurers could not be held liable, but he strongly disagreed about considering the event as a crime, reasoning that since the victims were nothing more than the ‘property’ of the slavers, no murder had been committed, adding ‘that the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.’ In order to clarify this point of marine law insurance, he explained that ‘if they (slaves) die a natural death, they (the insurers) did not pay…. (but if) the slaves are killed they will be paid for them as much as for damages done to goods and it is frequently done, just as if horses are killed they are paid for in the gross.’3
- James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011, p. 147.
- Ibid., pp. 145-6.
- Ibid., p. 143.
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