Zong, 1781


One of the biggest cases in the history of the Atlantic Slave trade brought out the issues of carelessness and selfish acts. The story of the slave ship Zong gives a remarkable account of how slaves were being murdered. The ship was under the command of Luke Collingwood and his crew. They left from the coast of Africa on September 6, 1781 on a voyage to Jamaica. On November 27, 1781 they arrived at an Island that they thought was Jamaica. By November 29, 1781 the ship had unfortunately claimed the lives of seven white men and sixty African slaves. (5) The crew had packed on more slaves than they had room and this caused a lot of disease and malnutrition. In Black Slaves in Britain, Shyllon states, "Chained two by two, right leg and left leg, right hand and left hand, each slave had less room than a man in a coffin." (6) It is no wonder why so many slaves were sick and had died, they were treated like animals and given hardly enough room to breathe.

Well that very day, Luke Collingwood made the decision of throwing the remaining sick Africans over the boat. He pulled his crew together and told them that if the sick slaves died a natural death, then the responsibility would be on them as the ship's crew. He then stated that if the slaves were thrown over while still alive for the safety of the ship it would be the under the responsibility of the underwriters. This seems very unjust, but at the time it was a law in Europe because slaves were seen as merchandise and a matter of insurance. The Law reads as followed:

"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 thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer." (7)


Collingwood was not the actual owner of the ship. The ship actually belonged to James Gregson, and a number of others who owned a slave ship firm in Liverpool. Collingwood took it upon himself to look out for the best interest of the owners as well as himself. He used the law in his favor, but there was no reason to throw the sick Africans over the boat because the ship was not in any danger. For the next three days Collingwood and his crew threw over 133 slaves, one managing to escape and climb back onto the boat. (8) Shyllon goes on to say, " The last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death."(9) Once again, I think that the Africans aboard the Zong as well as any other slave ship should be considered brave for enduring the painful, inhumane conditions they had to experience. Even when it came down to the seamen throwing the captured slaves over the boat, there were still ten people who faced death with a lot of courage.

When they returned to England the owners of the ship claimed the full value of the murdered slaves from the insurers. They claimed they there was a necessity to throw the slaves over the ship because of water depletion. Well it was proven later that it was all a lie and that the captain had an opportunity for more water on December 1. By the time the Zong had arrived in Jamaica on December 22, they had 420 gallons of water to spare.(10)

Eventually the insurance company found out about the owners lying and refused to pay them for their claims. The discrepancy about the claims for the slaves became a court case and was first heard in March 1783 in London. It was Gregson v. Gilbert that helped to bring the issue of the ill treatment of slaves to light. Although the laws were not changed due to this famous court case, it brought many people to support the abolition of the slave trade. To name a few, Oloudah Equiano came out against the murder of African slaves and he went to Granville Sharp for support. It was also that same year that the Quakers presented a petition for the abolition of the slave trade. Four years later with Granville Sharp, still inspired to end the slave trade, along with many others joined together to form the Anti-Slave trade society. (11)

I felt it important to discuss this case because not only did it reveal the atrocities of the Middle Passage, it also revealed the self-seeking acts of the owners and the sea men aboard these ships. The most important issue is that not only did this case bring out the atrocities and show the selfishness, it also disclosed the fact that there were laws in England that protected the barbaric behavior and complete disregard for human life that these men lived by. The laws of England can be said to have condoned the quest for power that these men had due to their inferiority because of the way they were viewed in their own society. One other thing to point out is the fact that the case was not about seeking justice against Luke Collingwood and his crew. The case was not about the murder of 132 human beings. It was about money and power, and that also says a lot about the European culture at the time as well.

While learning about the Middle Passage and the Zong case, I developed an even more appreciation for my culture. As an African American woman, I have always studied the affects that slavery and the Middle Passage had on my culture. As I studied the Zong, I felt that the men and women aboard that ship as well all slave ships had alot of strength and were very brave to get through the experience. I couldn't imagine going through such harsh conditions.


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