The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 130 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong in November 1781.
The story of the Zong massacre began in 1781, when a Liverpool syndicate led by one of the city’s major traders in enslaved Africans, William Gregson, on a slaving voyage in the area of Cape Coast and Anamabu, bought an impounded ship previously owned by the Dutch and called Zorgue (‘care’ in Dutch).
There were already 244 enslaved Africans on board, and they became part of the transaction.
During the five months before the ship sailed, more Africans were bought in the area of Cape Coast and Accra (Ghana), and placed on board.
Like most slave ships, the Zong took on too many people for the size of the ship. The ship which was built to house about 193 persons left the western coast of Africa for Black River, Jamaica on 18 August 1781 with about 440 enslaved Africans, under the captaincy of the inexperienced Luke Collingwood.
Historical evidence indicates that the Zong veered off course near Haiti, losing time, before it got back on course for Jamaica.
By then, complaints of water shortage, illness and death among the crew, along with poor navigational and leadership decisions, all created a level of confusion aboard.
Towards the end of November 1781, many of the people on board had starters to fall sick including both European sailors and enslaved Africans.
After the deaths of 70 slaves and sailors on board, the decision was made to eject some Africans in order to avoid more deaths and threaten the profitability of the journey and the possibility of claiming insurance for ‘lost cargo’.
If slaves died on the ship, ship workers would not receive redress from insurers. If the slaves were thrown from the ship in an attempt to “save other ship members and property”, a loss could be claimed with insurers.
The captain Luke Collingwood authorised the throwing of Africans overboard resulting in the brutal deaths of another 133 people.
Historical evidence mentioned that at 8p.m. on November 29, 1781, some 54 enslaved Africans, mainly women and children, were dragged from below deck, unshackled and shoved from the ship through the cabin window and into the open expanse of the ocean.
Two days later, on December 1, a further 42 men were thrown overboard, handcuffed and in irons, from the quarterdeck. A third batch was murdered later.
After the slave ship reached port at Black River, Jamaica, Zong’s owners made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves. When the insurers refused to pay, A court case ensued.
The court held that in some circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths. A jury also ruled im favor of the slave owners.
Publicity surrounding the Zong Massacre and the first case led William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, the highest court in Great Britain, to order a second trial. Mansfield presided and ruled in favour of the insurers. claims for the payment of the insurance were further denied by Mansfield. He held that the cargo had been poorly managed as the captain should have made a suitable allowance of water for each slave.
After the case, an abolitionists known as Granville Sharp attempted to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners for killing the slaves but was unsuccessful.
The Great Britain’s The Solicitor General, Justice John Lee, refused to take up the criminal charges claiming “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder… The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”
Although those who were responsible for the zong massacre were never brought to justice, the publicity of the event increased the profile of abolitionists and consequently mobilised the Free African community and abolitionist movement in Britain.
The massacre has inspired works of art and literature. It was remembered in London in 2007, among events to mark the bicentenary of the British Slave Trade Act 1807, which abolished British participation in the African slave trade, though not slavery itself.
A monument to the murdered slaves on Zong was installed at Black River, Jamaica, their intended port.