The Zong Massacre 1781

There can be few actions or statements that register the British ruling classes view of the slave as a commodity and not a human. The Zong Massacre of 133 slaves thrown overboard in mid Atlantic, is callous even in these dark times. The John Gregson owned Liverpool based vessel run by Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie and captained by inept Captain Luke Collingwood.

The ship was carrying too many slaves 470 nearly double its capacity. In mid Atlantic because of the captains poor navigation skills it hit an area called ‘The Doldrums’ and was becalmed. Disease struck the ship and 7 crew and 60 slaves died, Collingwood made the decision to throw 133 slaves overboard, to allow the ship’s owners to claim against the insurance for lost cargo and to protect his paypacket.

One slave escaped and climbed back on board 132 drowned, it is also reported that the last 10 slaves broke free of those holding them and threw themselves into the ocean, ‘embracing death as free men’.

They claimed to the insurance company they needed to throw the Slaves (cargo) overboard because of water depletion. However the insurance company found out the Zong had 420 gallons of water spare when it reached Jamaica. The insurance company’s underwriter Thomas Gilbert turned down the claim, leading to the now infamous court case Gregson v Gilbert:

C~REGSON v. GILBERT(LE), Thursday, 22d May, 1783. Where the captain of a slaveEhip mistook HispanioIa for ~amaica, whereby the voyage being re~rded, and the water falling short, aeveral of the slaves died for want of water, and others were thrown overboard, it was held that these facts did not support a stateRietit
in the deciaration, that by the perils of the seas, and contrary winds and currents, the ship waa retarded it1 her voyage, and by reason thereof so much of the water on board was spent, that some of the negroes died for want of sustenance, and others were throwa overboard for the preservation of the rest.

Gregson v Gilbert

The resulting court cases held that in some circumstances, the deliberate murder of enslaved people was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for those who had died. Amazingly the owners, captain and crew were found ‘not guilty’.

The Slave insurance law reads as follows:

“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.” 

The Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner 1840

Historically bringing this court case was a serious mistake for the Slave traders, it highlighted the greed and cruelty of the Slave trade to the public and influential people and gave strength to the ‘Abolitionist Movement’.

In 1783 the finding was overturned in the High Court, the Earl of Mansfield ruled in favour of the insurers, however inspite of efforts by Anti Slavery campaigner Granville Sharpe, who had had the case highlighted to him by Olaudah Equiano, no criminal charges were ever bought, indeed it was Sharpe who first used the term ‘Zong Massacre’.

In the end this ruling was simply the denial of an insurance claim like the one you would have on your Ford Mondeo.

To end on a somewhat ironic note, the word Zong is Dutch for ‘care’.

Black History Month 2021

By Rob Burns

Further reading

A good summary in Wikipedia – The Zong Massacre

Gregson v Gilbert makes for uncomfortable reading

The Zong Massacre – Black Past

The story of the Zong slave ship: a mass murder masquerading as an insurance claim the Guardian 19th January 2021

Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie – Wikipedia

Olaudah Equiano – Black History Bootleg

Abolitionist Movement – and Granville Sharpe Wikipedia

Earl of Mansfield – Wikipedia

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