The Slave-Ship Zong Massacre
Updated: Sep 29
J. M. W. Turner's The Slave Ship (1840) was originally entitled Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying -- Typhoon Coming On by the English landscape artist and abolitionist. It depicts, in the right corner of the foreground, a single dark-skinned leg jutting out of the water with an iron chain locked around the ankle. A swarm of seagulls and fish circles the leg. On the left, there are smaller dark limbs surrounded by loose chains, alluding to the 132 Africans who were thrown off the ship, Zong, in 1781 in "mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim". Fish tails follow the frenzy.
The crew of the British ship, the Zong, threw 132 enslaved Africans overboard for insurance purposes after it claimed that the ship ran low on drinking water and it feared insurrection. Ten more people leapt to their death rather than meet it at the hands of their captors.
Two years later in 1783, the ship’s owner, the William Gregson syndicate, claimed compensation from Gilbert, the insurers, for loss of the slaves, knowing that the case would attract publicity, yet openly admitting that the crew had killed the Africans. The syndicate demanded its insured sum of £30 per person, or £3,960.
“If the slaves died onshore, the Liverpool shipowners would have had no redress from their insurers. Similarly, if the slaves died a ‘natural death’ at sea, then insurance could not be claimed. If some slaves were thrown overboard to save the rest of the ‘cargo’ or the ship, then a claim could be made under general average. (This principle holds that a captain who jettisons part of his cargo to save the rest can claim for the loss from his insurers.),” according to The Zong Case Study, Understanding Slavery Initiative, which is sponsored by, among others, Bristol Museum Galleries Archives.
This had been standard practice. However, up to 1783, no one, as far as is known, had claimed for the death of Africans deliberately killed in order to make an insurance claim.
The George Floyd Tragedy of Its Time
The legal proceedings surrounding the Zong massacre demonstrated how British law facilitated the trans-Atlantic slave trade as well as strengthened the campaign for abolition. It was similar to the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, when an international spotlight was shined onto a horrific event, and the world paid attention to what it had managed to ignore or deny before.
“Mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim”, is how James Walvin, professor emeritus at the University of York and author of The Zong (2011) described it.
“The Zong case lit the blue touch paper in England. It aroused abolitionist anger and fed into the initial campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade,” Walvin told The Guardian (January 19, 2021).
Writers and artists created pieces inspired by the massacre. The abolitionist, J. M. W. Turner (1775-1881), painted The Slave Ship (1840) after publication of the second edition of The History and Abolition of the Slave Trade (1839) by Thomas Clarkson. At that time, there also had been international publicity surrounding the ship rebellion on the Spanish-owned La Amistad by Mende captives in July 1839 and the subsequent court case in the United States.
In 1840, the landscape artist exhibited the oil on canvas at the Royal Academy of Arts. Turner, who lived in London all his life and retained his Cockney accent, paired The Slave Ship with his poem, Fallacies of Hope (1812), a part of which read:
Aloft all hands, strike the top-masts and belay;
Yon angry setting sun and fierce-edged clouds
Declare the Typhoon’s coming.
Before it sweeps your decks, throw overboard
The dead and dying – ne’er heed their chains
Hope, Hope, fallacious Hope!
Where is thy market now?”
The Zong was originally named Zorg (meaning Care in Dutch) by its owners, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie, according to The Zong in the Context of the Eighteenth-Century Slave Trade (2007), Journal of Legal History. Based in Middelburg in the Netherlands, the 110-ton vessel operated as a slave ship. In 1777, the ship delivered kidnapped Africans to the Dutch colony of Surinam in South America.
As part of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War, on February 10, 1781, the British 16-gun brig HMS Alert captured her off the coast of Africa. On February 26, the Alert and the Zong arrived at Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana. The Royal African Company used the castle as its regional headquarters.
In early March 1781, the master of William bought the Zong on behalf of the William Gregson syndicate, Liverpool merchants, which included Edward Wilson, James Aspinall and William Gregson and his sons, James and John Gregson, and son-in-law, George Case.
Although Liverpool was late entering the slave trade, by 1740, it had surpassed Bristol and London as the pre-eminent slave-trading city in Britain, according to Liverpool’s Slave Trade Legacy (March 3, 2020), History Today. At least 25 slave traders held the post of Lord Mayor of Liverpool, reported BBC News (January 15, 2020).
William Gregson, a rope maker in his youth, became Lord Mayor in 1762 and his son, John Gregson, was Lord Mayor in 1784, the year after the end of legal proceedings in the Zong massacre.
William Gregson’s son-in-law, George Case, who was from a prominent family, became the Mayor of Liverpool in 1781, the year of the Zong massacre.
William Gregson, one of Britain’s most prolific slave traders, had an interest in at least 152 slave voyages. His slave ships are recorded as carrying 58,201 African captives, of whom 9,148 lost their lives. By the time of his retirement, he had been a slave trader for half a century, and he had branched out into banking and insurance, according to Memorial to Zong: The Gregson Syndicate – The Crew – The Abolitionists (2021), Lancaster City Museums.
In payment for the Zong were bills of exchange, which are documents ensuring payment, and the 244 enslaved people already on board. After the voyage to Jamaica began, Gilbert, another syndicate in Liverpool underwrote the ship and its human cargo for up to £8,000, about half the slaves’ potential market value, wrote Walvin in The Zong.
The Zong had an inadequately small and quarrelsome crew, who were at loggerheads with each other by the time the ship reached the Caribbean after a long Atlantic crossing, according to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 (2019), Revue de la Societe d’etudes anglo-americains des XVII et XVIII siecles.
It also had an inexperienced captain, Luke Collingwood, formerly the surgeon on the William. Although Collingwood lacked experience in navigation and command, ship’s surgeons typically were involved in selecting captured Africans for sale. The doctor’s expertise determined the commodity value of people. If the doctor rejected a captive, that person suffered commercial death, being of no value and was liable to be killed by the African traders, according to A Chain of Murder in the Slave Trade: A Wider Context of the Zong Massacre (2012), International Review of Social History. Sometimes, these killings happened in the presence of the surgeon.
The Zong’s first mate was James Kelsall, who also had served on the William.
The ship’s only passenger, Robert Stubbs, was a former captain of slave ships. In early 1780, the African Committee of the Royal African Company appointed him governor of Fort Anomabu, a British fort near Cape Coast Castle. This position also made him vice-president of the Royal African Company Council of Cape Coast Castle. After nine months, due to his ineptitude and enmity incurred with John Roberts, governor of Cape Coast Castle, Stubbs was forced out. He was accused of being a semi-literate drunk who mismanaged the slave-trading activities of the fort, wrote Walvin in The Zong. He boarded the Zong to return to Britain.
When the Zong left Africa for Jamaica, it had a 17-man crew, which was far too small to maintain adequate sanitary conditions on the ship, according to A Chain of Murder in the Slave Trade. Sailors willing to risk disease and slave-ship rebellions were difficult enough to recruit in Britain and even harder for a ship captured from the Dutch off the coast of Africa, wrote Walvin in The Zong. Therefore, the Zong’s crew consisted of remnants of the previous Dutch crew, the crew of the William and unemployed sailors hired from settlements along the coast, according to Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology (2007), Journal of Legal History.
The plan of the 300-ton British slave ship, the Brookes, at full capacity, after the Slave Trade Act of 1788 with 454 slaves. This same ship reportedly had carried as many as 609 slaves. (Published by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787)
Stop at Sao Tome
On August 18, 1781, the Zong left Cape Coast Castle. It had bought an additional 178 Africans to add to the 244 already aboard for a total of 442, more than twice the number of people that it could transport safely, according to Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology (2007), Journal of Legal History.
The ship stopped for water at Sao Tome (Portuguese for Saint Thomas), which Portuguese explorers had discovered around 1470 and had found uninhabited. Sao Tome and Principe (Prince named for Afonso, Prince of Portugal) islands became a colony of the Portuguese Empire until 1975, when independence was granted by Portugal after its Carnation Revolution.
The islands’ location -- the nearest settlement was in Gabon 150 miles to the east and named Port Gentil in 1900 – made them a crucial trading post of the transatlantic slave trade. The earliest settlers were a significant number of criminals and orphans, but mostly Jews, according to The Expulsion 1492 Chronicles (August 2009). Among them were 2,000 Jewish children, eight years old and younger, were taken from their parents to ensure that they were raised Christian. They worked on the sugar plantations, according to The Invention of the White Race (1997).
(The major target of the Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821) was new converts from Judaism to Christianity who were suspected of secretly practicing Judaism. Many were originally Spanish Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834). To a lesser extent, people of other ethnicities and faiths, such as practitioners of African religions and Vodun, were also put on trial for heresy and witchcraft, according to Paper, Ink, Vodun, and the Inquisition: Tracing Power, Slavery, and Witchcraft in the Early Modern Portuguese Atlantic (June 2020), Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
(In the Portuguese Empire between 1536 and 1794, there were 1,183 executions, 663 executions in effigy and 29,611 who received penances of self-abasement.
(As a way of making historical reparations, a 2013 amendment to Portugal’s Law on Nationality allowed descendants of Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were expelled in the Portuguese Inquisition to become citizens without a residency requirement. After some notorious cases where it was reported that people had been granted citizenship through false documents and other misdeeds, a new regulation in March decreed that candidates have to prove an “effective connection with Portugal” through ownership of real estate or companies, or through regular trips in an applicant’s life to Portugal. Among cases being investigated was that of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich who became a citizen in April 2021.
(“Strictly speaking, most of the possible/potential applicants for naturalization in this way do not fulfill any of these criteria of effective and lasting connection to Portugal,” said lawyer, Sara Minhalma, of Rede de Serviços de Advocacia, or Legal Services Network (April 8).)
The settlers of Sao Tome imported large numbers of slaves from mainland Africa to cultivate the rich volcanic soil with highly profitable sugarcane.
“It was the Portuguese who took the lead, modeling Black plantation slavery first on the islands of Madeira and Sao Tome, and then on an epic scale in Brazil. If the Spanish found much of the New World and imported the diseases that depopulated it, (Howard W.) French argues, the Portuguese discovery in Africa of the means to exploit it surpassed and outlasted Spain’s mining frenzy (of gold) as a productive economic activity. The Portuguese model was adopted in turn by the Dutch, French and British, who refined it on Barbados into a cruelly efficient system of profiteering that gave owners near total control over their captives’ lives and allowed even murder to go unpunished,” read The New York Times review (October 14, 2021) of Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War by Howard W. French.
On September 6, 1781, after taking on drinking water at Sao Tome, the Zong left for Jamaica.
“Someone made the disastrous decision of mistaking the western end of Jamaica for Cape Tiburon in eastern Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). This navigational error meant that by 29 November 1781, the Zong was hopelessly off-course, becalmed somewhere off the south-west of Jamaica, far away from its intended landing point of Kingston.”
In mid-November 1781, the ship left St. Kitts in the Caribbean.
The crew discovered that the water barrels were leaking, though no sailor or captive was put on short allowance, according to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 (2019), Revue de la Societe d’etudes anglo-americains des XVII et XVIII siecles.
On November 18 or 19, the ship sighted Tobago in the Caribbean, but it failed to stop there to replenish water supplies, according to Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology (2007), Journal of Legal History.
According to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1793: “Someone made the disastrous decision of mistaking the western end of Jamaica for Cape Tiburon in eastern Saint-Domingue (later Haiti). This navigational error meant that by 29 November 1781, the Zong was hopelessly off-course, becalmed somewhere off the south-west of Jamaica, far away from its intended landing point of Kingston.”
Who was in charge of the ship, if anyone, at this point?
The captain, Luke Collingwood, had been gravely ill for some time, according to Walvin in The Zorg. The man who would have replaced him in the chain of command, First Mate James Kelsall, had been suspended from duty following an argument with Collingwood on November 14. It is likely, though no evidence supports this contention, that passenger, Robert Stubbs, temporarily commanded the Zong during the captain’s incapacitation despite Stubbs not having sailed a slave ship for at least a quarter of a century, according to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 (2019), Revue de la Societe d’etudes anglo-americains des XVII et XVIII siecles.
“At the very least, there was an absence of effective leadership at a very crucial moment in a troubled voyage,” according to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 (2019).
Overcrowding, malnutrition, accidents and disease already had killed six mariners and about 62 African captives, according to historian Walvin.
First Mate James Kelsall later claimed that there was only four days’ water when the navigational error was discovered and Jamaica was still 10 to 13 days away.
However, this claim was disputed because when the ship arrived in Jamaica, it had 420 Imperial gallons (1,900 liters) of water, according to The case of the slave-ship Zong, 1783 (August 1969), History Today.
Also, an affidavit later made by Kelsall stated that on December 1, it rained heavily for more than a day, filling six casks of water, enough for 11 days, to be collected on board the ship, wrote the historian Walvin.
Who came up with the idea of murdering the Africans? Whatever the answer, no member of the crew opposed the decision.
On November 29, the voyage was nearly three weeks longer than the average slave-ship journey to Jamaica, according to A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 (2019).
On that day, the crew assembled to consider the proposal that some of the Africans should be thrown overboard to avoid slave insurrection and to allow enough water for the others, according to Walvin.
On that day, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea, according to Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology (2007), Journal of Legal History.
On December 1, 42 enslaved men were thrown overboard.
In the next several days, another group, this time of 36 people, had the same fate. One man, who spoke English, begged that they be denied food and water and die through starvation. The request was ignored by the sailors. Another 10 captives, in a display of defiance, committed suicide by jumping into the sea.
On December 22, the ship arrived at Black River, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica. Captain Luke Collingwood died days afterwards. The surviving captives, who numbered about 200, were advertised for sale.
In January 1782, the captives were sold for an average price of £36 per person.
The ship’s log – the formal record of everything that happened on the ship – had disappeared, according to The Zong Case Study, Understanding Slavery Initiative.
Legal proceedings began when Gilbert, the insurers, refused to compensate the William Gregson syndicate. Gregson v Gilbert was tried initially at the Guildhall in London on March 6, 1783, with the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Earl of Mansfield, overseeing the trial before a jury.
Robert Stubbs, the ex-slave ship captain, was the only witness in the first trial.
The jury found in favor of Gregson, the owners, under an established protocol in maritime insurance that considered slaves as cargo.
Summing up the verdict at the following hearing, according to a transcript of abolitionist Granville Sharp, Mansfield said that the jury “had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard . . . The question was whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them overboard to save the rest? The Jury were of opinion that there was . . . “
Gilbert, the insurers, appealed the decision, not on the basis of common humanity, as solicitor Andrew Bicknell notes, but because it occurred as a result of errors of navigation and mismanagement of the vessel, namely insufficient water onboard, reported The Guardian (January 19, 2021).
Olaudah Equiano was an abolitionist who had been kidnapped as a child in what is today southern Nigeria and sold three times before buying his freedom. His autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789), helped gain passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. On March 19, 1783, he told fellow abolitionist, Granville Sharp, about the massacre on the Zong. Soon, a newspaper carried a lengthy account. Sharp sought legal advice about the possibility of prosecuting the crew for murder, but he was unsuccessful in procuring a murder trial, wrote historian Walvin.
Dido Elizabeth Belle (left) and her cousin were raised together by their great-uncle, jurist Lord Mansfield at the stately home, Kenwood House, in Hampstead, London. The portrait, by David Martin, is highly unusual in 18th-century British art for showing a black woman as the equal of her white companion, rather than as a servant or slave.
Gilbert, the insurers, appealed the decision, with the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, the Earl of Mansfield, overseeing the trial before a jury.
Mansfield had been the judge in Somerset v. Stewart (1772), and he had ruled on the right of an enslaved person on English soil not to be forcibly removed from the country and sent to Jamaica for sale. Charles Stewart, a customs officer, bought James Somerset, an enslaved African, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, a British crown colony. Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769. In October 1771, Somerset escaped but was recaptured in November. Stewart had him imprisoned on a ship preparing to leave for Jamaica.
Slavery had never been authorized by statute within England or Wales, and Mansfield found it to be unsupported within England by the common law, although he made no comment on the position in overseas territories of the British Empire.
“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law which preserves its force long after its reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”
At that time, it was suggested that Mansfield’s personal experience with raising his great-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle (1761-1804), who had been born into slavery in the British West Indies, influenced his decision. Belle’s mother was an enslaved African woman. Her father was a British career naval officer. When Belle was about four, he brought her with him to England, entrusting her upbringing to his uncle, Lord Mansfield. Belle and a second cousin were raised together as free gentlewomen at Kenwood House. Belle, an heiress, lived there 30 years.
Gilbert, the insurers, applied to the Earl of Mansfield to have the previous verdict set aside and for the case to be tried again. On May 21-22 of 1783, a hearing was held at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall before Mansfield and two other judges. The Solicitor General, John Lee, appeared on behalf of the Zong’s owners, as he had done in the previous Guildhall trial. Granville Sharp also attended along with a secretary whom he had hired to take a written record of the proceedings.
The Zong’s captain, Collingwood, had died two years ago. The only eyewitness to appear at the hearing was, again, Robert Stubbs, although a written affidavit by first mate, James Kensall, was made available to the lawyers, according to historian Walvin in The Zong.
Stubbs claimed that there was “an absolute Necessity for throwing over the Negroes” because the crew feared all the slaves would die if they did not throw some into the sea.
The insurers argued that Collingwood had made “a Blunder and Mistake” in sailing beyond Jamaica and that slaves had been killed so their owners could claim compensation. They alleged that Collingwood did this because he did not want his first voyage as a slave-ship captain to be unprofitable.
Solicitor General John Lee said that the slaves “perished just as a Cargo of Goods perished” and were jettisoned for the greater good of the ship.
The insurers’ legal team replied that Lee’s argument could never justify the killing of innocent people. Each of the three addressed issues of humanity and called the actions of the Zong’s crew nothing less than murder. The historian, James Walvin, has argued that it is possible that Granville Sharp directly influenced the strategy of the insurers’ legal team.
New evidence was heard at the hearing: heavy rain had fallen on the second day of the killings but still a third lot of slaves was killed by the crew.
The evidence led Mansfield to order another trial because the rainfall meant that the killing of those people after the water shortage had been eased could not be justified in terms of the greater necessity of saving the ship and the rest of the slaves.
One of the justices said that the new evidence invalidated the findings of the jury in the first trial as the jury had heard testimony that the water shortage resulted from ship’s poor condition caused by unforeseen maritime conditions rather than from errors of the crew.
Mansfield concluded that the insurers were not liable for losses resulting from errors committed by the Zong’s crew.
After the Hearing
“It appears that no trial ever took place so, happily, the owners didn’t receive their insurance payment but, perhaps, a chance was lost by the court to put down a moral market in relation to such a case,” Bicknell, the lawyer, told The Guardian.
Five years later, in 1788, the Slave Trade Act, also known as Dolben’s Act, regulated conditions on board British slave ships.
In 1807, Britain enacted another Slave Trade Act, which prohibited the Atlantic slave trade.
In 1833, Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, emancipating its slaves. It took out significant loans in order to pay £20 million – 40 percent of its national budget – for compensation to 46,000 slave-owners for “loss of human property”, according to NBC News (December 26, 2021) and BBC News (September 30, 2015). Due to the large amount of interest generated by the loan, British taxpayers did not pay off the debt fully until 2015, reported NBC News.
Reparations for Slaves, Slave Owners
Slave owners received reparations. Calls for reparation for slaves are as old as emancipation. CARICOM (Caribbean Community) renewed its call in 2020, according to an opinion piece in Al Jazeera (July 19, 2020).
Unlike government, British academia seems to be taking or moving toward action.
In the United States, California became the first state to adopt a law to set up a task force to study potential reparations to the descendants of slaves, according to the Los Angeles Times.
On June 1, the California task force issued a 500-page document that called for “comprehensive reparations” for Black people harmed by a historical system of state-sanctioned oppression, reported Truthout (June 5). The panel intends to deliver a comprehensive plan next year.
At the national level, HR (House of Representatives) 40, the reparations bill introduced more than three decades ago by the late Representative John Conyers, finally has enough votes to pass in the House of Representatives, according to Truthout.
However, the future of HR 40 in the Senate is not so promising. Instead, supporters are urging President Joe Biden to issue an executive order that would establish a reparations commission. Thus far, Biden has refused to respond to the request, reported Truthout.
As Nikole Hannah-Jones notes in her book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, the only Americans who have ever received restitution by the government for slavery were white enslavers compensated after the Civil War “for their loss of human property”.
A wreath-laying ceremony at the Zong Monument in Black River, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, was held on December 22, 2019, near the landing of the ship. Earlier, a memorial service was held and following the service, worshippers tossed flowers into the sea to honor the drowned victims. (Photo by The Gleaner)
In 2007, a memorial stone was erected at Black River, St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, near where the Zong had landed so many years beforehand.
In March 2007, a replica of the Zong sailed to Tower Bridge in London to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Act for the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which abolished the slave trade.