29 November 1781
On 29 November 1781, Captain Luke Collingwood, commanding the British slave ship Zong, on route for Jamaica, ordered his crew to murder one third of his ‘cargo’ of African slaves by throwing them overboard. Two months earlier, he had gambled on cramming 470 slaves into the dark humid hull of the 110 ton square stern vessel when it was anchored off the coast of West Africa. By late November, his ship was behind schedule due to a navigation error and running short on supplies of water and food. Collingwood became anxious that some of the slaves, many of whom were seriously sick due to overcrowding and malnutrition, might die. That would entail a significant financial loss, since contemporary maritime insurance regulations classified death from ‘disease or sickness’ as a ‘natural death’ and therefore not covered by the insurer. Even if the slaves survived, their poor condition meant he would not obtain good prices from their sale in Jamaica.
On the other hand, if the ‘cargo’ was thrown overboard out ‘of necessity’, as for example when quelling an insurrection, then, according to the regulations, ‘the insurers must answer.’1 Relying on this assumption that the drowning of the slaves would be seen as an understandable precaution, on 29 November, fifty four slaves were hurled in their chains into the ocean, on 30 November forty two more, and on 1 December twenty six. Another ten Africans, it was claimed, were so traumatized by witnessing the killings, that they surprised the crew by suddenly leaping overboard to their deaths.
The syndicate of Liverpool traders who owned the ship later claimed on the insurers to cover the cost of the 132 ‘lost’ men, women and children ( £30 each ) because, as they argued, the captain had had no alternative. As with other traders, they had insured their slave cargoes and, in so far as the particular contract allowed, could claim on any ‘loss.’ The insurers, however, challenged the case in court, not on the grounds of mass murder or even unlawful killing, but because they argued that the jettisoning of the slaves had been ‘unnecessary.’2 When Granville Sharp, a pioneering abolitionist, claimed publicly that the deliberate drowning of the slaves amounted to a brutal murder, he was sharply rebuked in court by the Solicitor-General John Lee, who reminded him that ‘this is a case of chattels or goods… they are goods and property: whether right or wrong, we have nothing to do with it. This property – the human creatures if you will – have been thrown overboard: whether or not for the preservation of the rest, that is the real question.’3
[ See also Lord Mansfield’s Verdict 22 May 1783 ]
- John Weskett, A Complete Digest of the Laws, Theory and Practice of Insurance, London, 1781, p. 525 cited in James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, London, 1992, p. 17.
- James Walvin, op. cit., pp. 16-20 and James Walvin, The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2011.
- Solicitor-General John Lee cited in James Walvin, Black Ivory: A History of British Slavery, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, London, 1992, p. 19.
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