The Zong slave massacre

The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 120 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29th of November 1781.

 The Gregson slave-trading syndicate was based in Liverpool and owned the ship. It sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As it was the common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo.

When the ship was low on drinking water after navigational mistakes made by the steerer in charge of the ship, the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea to drown. According to them,  this was done to ensure the survival of the rest of the ship’s passengers, and also in part to cash in on the insurance on the slaves, thus not losing money on the slaves who would have died from the lack of water.

After the slave ship reached the port at Black River in Jamaica, Zong’s owners made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves. Although, when the insurers refused to pay, the result from the court cases said that in some circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths.

However, Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, ruled against the syndicate owners in this case. This is as a result of the new evidence that was brought that the captain and crew were at fault.

After the first trial, freed slave Olaudah Equiano brought news of the massacre to the attention of the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, and Granville worked unsuccessfully to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder.

 Fortunately reports of the massacre received increased publicity as a result of the legal dispute. This stimulated the abolitionist movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The events were referred to as a powerful sign of the dismays of the Middle Passage of slaves to the New World.

In 1787, the non-denominational Society that Effects the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded, and the next year Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act 1788 and its first law regulated slave trade, to limit the number of slaves per ship.

Three years after, the Parliament banned insurance companies from repaying ship owners when slaves were thrown overboard.

In addition, the extermination inspired works of art and literature. In 2007, it was commemorated in London among occasions to mark the anniversary of the British Slave Trade Act 1807 that abolished British participation in the African slave trade but not slavery itself.

Also, a monument for the murdered slaves Zong was installed at Black River, Jamaica, which was their intended port.

Zong was originally named Zorg which means “Care” in Dutch by its owners “the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie”. It worked as a slave ship based in the Netherlands, and it made a voyage in 1777. It delivers slaves to the coast of Suriname, South America. It was a “square stern ship” of 110 tons burthen.

However, the British 16-gun brig HMS Alert captured her on the 10th of February 1781. 16 days after, the duo arrived at Cape Coast Castle, in what is present-day Ghana. Then, Cape Coast Castle was maintained and staffed, together with other forts and castles, by the Royal African Company which used the Castle as its regional headquarters.

In early March 1781, the master of William purchased Zong on behalf of a syndicate of Liverpool merchants. The members of the syndicate were: Edward Wilson; George Case; James Aspinall; and William, James, and John Gregson.

Gregson had an interest in 50 slaving voyages between 1747 and 1780. By the end of his life, vessels in his name had carried 58,000 Africans to slavery in the Americas.

Zong was paid for with bills of exchange, and the 244 slaves already on board were part of the transaction.

Zong was the first command of Luke Collingwood, formerly the surgeon on the William but Collingwood lacked experience in navigation and command. The ship’s surgeons usually participated in the selection of slaves for purchase in Africa, so their expertise supports the determination of “commodity value” for a captive.

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In some instances when the surgeon rejected a captive, that individual suffered a death referred to as “commercial death”,   which means “being of no value”. The slave is liable to be killed by African handlers and sometimes these killings happened in the presence of the surgeon. Likely, Collingwood had already witnessed the mass-killing of slaves.