On 6 September 1781, the slave ship Zong departed the coast of Africa with 470 slaves. Since this human cargo was a very valuable commodity at that time, many captains took on more slaves than their ships could accommodate in order to increase their profits. The Zong was overloaded with slaves by the captain, Luke Collingwood.
Two weeks later by 29 November many of the slaves had begun to die from disease and malnutrition. The ship then sailed in an area in the mid-Atlantic known as “the Doldrums” because of periods of little or no wind. As the ship got stranded, seven of the 17 crew members and over 50 slaves died from sickness.
As he became more desperate, Collingwood decided to “jettison” some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the shipowners with the opportunity to claim for the loss on their insurance. Over the next week, 132 sick and dying slaves were thrown overboard by the remaining crew members while another 10 slaves threw themselves overboard in what Collingwood later described as an “Act of Defiance.”
When the ship arrived in Jamaica, James Gregson, the owner of the ship, filed an insurance claim for their loss arguing that the Zong did not have enough water to sustain both crew and the human commodities. Thomas Gilbert, the insurance underwriter disputed the claim citing the fact that the Zong had 420 gallons of water aboard when she was inventoried in Jamaica. However, the Jamaican court in 1782 ruled in favour of the owners.
The case was appealed by the insurers in 1783 and in the process provoked a great deal of public interest and the attention of Great Britain‘s abolitionists. Granville Sharp, who was the leading abolitionist at the time, used the deaths of the slaves to increase public awareness about the slave trade and drum up support for the anti-slavery cause. He was the first person to use the word, ‘massacre.’
The publicity surrounding the Zong Massacre was enormous and as a result, William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, the highest court in Great Britain ordered a second trial. He was the presiding judge and ruled in favour of the insurers. He also stated that the cargo had been poorly managed as the captain should have provided a suitable allowance of water for each slave.
Abolitionist Sharp tried to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners but was unsuccessful. The Solicitor General of Great Britain, Justice John Lee, declined to take up the criminal charges claiming “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…The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”
That profile of abolitionists such as Oluaudah Equiano and Granville Sharp increased although those who were responsible for the Zong massacre were never brought to justice, also new converts including Thomas Clarkson and Reverend John Ramsay join the anti-slavery campaign. They were a source of inspiration for William Wilberforce who led a successful campaign to have the British Parliament abolish slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.
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