21 MAY


[ This piece has had its date changed to 22 May ]

On this day in 1783, Lord Mansfied, the presiding judge at an appeal hearing, 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 however challenged in court by the insurers.

The only witness who was called to give evidence was the ship’s only passenger, Robert Stubbs, described as “a drunken liar and cheat” by those who knew him.[1] Stubbs 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

Mansfield, delivering his verdict, strongly disagreed, 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.”[4]

Mansfield ruled that the insurers should not be held liable due to navigational and other errors made, although there was absolutely no question of the killings amounting to murder and no such charge was ever brought against any member of the ship’s crew.



  1. James Walvin, (2011), “The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery,” Yale University Press, New Haven and London, p153
  2. p147
  3. p145-6
  4. p143.

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