Friday 29 November 2013

The Zong Massacre

Today our tale is a tragic one, a dark chapter in the story of Britain's nautical heritage. When I sat down to tell the story of the drownings at Nantes I found myself thinking of the Zong massacre, a terrible crime that cost some 142 enslaved African people their lives. Cast into the mid-Atlantic, they were left to drown and when the case finally came to court it wasn't a trial for murder, but a disagreement over insurance.

The Slave Ship by JMW Turner, 1840
The Slave Ship by JMW Turner, 1840

Originally registered to the Dutch, the Zong had been captured by the Royal Navy and by the end of 1781 was sailing out of Liverpool under the ownership of merchant syndicate including men who had made their fortunes in the slave trade. When the deal for ownership of the ship was finalised it was already off the coast of Africa, with 224 slaves imprisoned on board. The Zong was insured for £8000 and captained by Luke Collingwood, a former surgeon with little command experience looking forward to a lucrative retirement. Collingwood was supported by first mate, James Kelsall and a crew of less than 20. Also on board was a passenger, Robert Stubbs, a former governor who had been removed from his post on account of repeated and serious misconduct.

As the ship sailed on Collingwood fell ill and effective command of the vessel fell first to Kelsall and then, apparently to Stubbs, when Kelsall was suspended for unknown reasons. The number of slaves on board swelled to over 400, the conditions on the Zong growing more barbaric with each day. The command structure in chaos, a number of poor decisions in November 1781 meant that the hugely overcrowded ship was left without enough food or water and conditions on board grew ever more hellish. When the coast of Jamaica became visible on the horizon, salvation was finally in sight but the crew made a catastrophic navigation error. Wrongly believing the land mass was a hostile French colony they turned the ship back into the open sea, sailing over 100 miles before the mistake was noticed. By this point slaves and crew alike were dying from disease or starvation, with no hope of respite.

At this point a stark reality became clear to the fevered Collingwood; if the slaves died on land or on board the Zong, he would receive no money for them. However, if they drowned, an insurance claim could be made for each at a value of £30 per person. On 29th November the crew discussed the plan and by the end of the day, over 50 women and children had been chained and thrown into the sea to drown. A few days later more slaves were murdered in the same manner, with 142 cast into the ocean by the time the ship reached Jamaica. Gravely ill, Collingwood would be dead within days or arrival.

The owners of the ship made a claim for lost cargo against their insurance and, when it was refused, took the underwriters to court. The case hinged on the matter of whether the slaves were killed to save the rest from dehydration or whether they were murdered simply for the insurance money. With the ship's log conveniently lost, Kelsall spoke out against other witnesses, claiming that the ship was carrying enough water to sustain those on board and that he alone had argued against the massacre.

The jury found in favour of the Zong's owners and the insurers were ordered to pay up. They appealed against the ruling and another furious court case ensued. this time though, the witness accounts were so contradictory and the proceedings so muddled that a retrial was ordered. Whether it happened we cannot tell, as the Zong disappears from legal papers at this point.

Outraged that the trial should be over money and not murder, abolitionist Granville Sharp attempted to have the crew prosecuted for the massacre. His efforts were rebuffed by the Lord Chief Justice, William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield but Sharp's crusade continued and the abolitionist cause gathered speed throughout the century. 

Although, in the end, nobody was held culpable for the terrible events on board the Zong, the fate of the murdered slaves brought the plight that thousands endured into the public consciousness. It would be many years before the abolitionists finally found their efforts rewarded but those who died during those terrible days at sea are memorialised today at Black River, Jamaica, where there stands a permanent commemoration to the horrors of the Zong massacre.


Antoine Vanner said...

A ghastly story, but well told and one that should never be forgotten.

Vallypee said...

How awful. It's hard to credit, but I know it's true. Well told!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, sir.

Catherine Curzon said...

It really was a terrible thing, thank you for stopping by.

Unknown said...

I think this cropped up in the book 'Belle'. Awful.