When more than 130 African captives were killed at sea

When more than 130 African captives were killed at sea

In 1781, the crew of the British slave ship Zong threw African captives overboard after the ship began to run out of supplies on the way to Jamaica.

Public domainAs in this print, captive Africans were thrown overboard during the Zong Massacre in 1781.

There is a piece of sea in the Atlantic Ocean called “the Doldrums” which is famous for its stillness. There is little wind, little movement. But on one horrific day in 1781, screams broke the usual calm as a slave ship threw more than 100 captive Africans into the ocean during the Zong Massacre.

The crew of the slave ship Zong, battered by illness and short of water, made the cruel decision when their trip to Jamaica took longer than expected. They dropped more than 100 captives in several days, who, still chained, quickly sank under the waves.

The Doldrums may have kept what happened during the Zong Massacre a secret, but once the slave ship arrived in port in Jamaica, its owner tried to recoup his losses by filing a claim. ‘assurance. In the aftermath, the courts debated not whether the ship’s crew had committed murder, but whether they should be compensated for the “lost” cargo.

The doomed voyage of the slave ship Zong

Before his infamy, the Zong was just one of many slave ships that transported captives from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. In the 18th century alone, an estimated six to seven million Africans were torn from their homeland and sold as slaves in the “New World”, by HISTORY.

THE Zong, a Dutch ship purchased by slave trader William Gregson in 1781, began its doomed voyage in August. By the time it left Accra for Jamaica, it had 442 Africans on board, more than double its capacity.

Zong slave ship

University of BrightonThe slave ship Zong where the massacre took place.

THE Daily Mail reports that some of the enslaved people on board had spent more than a year on board the Zong, as the ship moved slowly along the African coast, picking up captives. As on other slave ships, they were crowded below decks where disease quickly spread.

The Zong massacre took place two months later when the ship’s crew, beleaguered by illness and delays, realized they were running out of water.

How the Zong Massacre Unfolded at Sea

18th century slave ship

Library of CongressA depiction of how enslaved Africans were herded onto slave ships. When the Zong leaving Accra, it held more than 400 captives, double its capacity.

THE Zong was already suffering from illness and lack of water when someone on board made a terrible mistake. After spotting Jamaica, the Daily Mail reports that they mistakenly believed their destination was actually a hostile French colony. So the ship set sail.

At the end of November, the Zong had sailed straight into a slice of the Atlantic Ocean called “the Doldrums”, where the lack of wind interrupted their journey. According black pastdisease quickly spread throughout the stranded ship, killing 17 crew and more than 50 Africans.

On November 29, 1781, the surviving members of the Zong the crew decided to act. They made the ruthless decision to throw dozens of their African captives overboard in order to preserve the ship’s water supply.

Over the next few days, the crew of the Zong advanced their murderous plot. THE Daily Mail reports that they dropped more than 50 women and children on the first day, then continued with almost 70 others, who, chained up, sank screaming into the sea. Although an English-speaking African begged the crew to let them live, promising that he and the others could live without food or water until they reached Jamaica, he was ignored.

Enslaved people thrown overboard

Navy MuseumA depiction of the Zong Massacre in 1781.

A total of 133 captive Africans were killed in the Zong massacre. Most were forcibly thrown overboard by the ship’s crew, but some chose to jump and commit suicide. At the time when the Zong eventually arriving in Black River, Jamaica, it had only 208 enslaved Africans on board.

What happened at sea may have remained a gruesome secret among the crew, but after the ship arrived in Jamaica, its owner, William Gregson, filed an insurance claim for his lost ‘cargo’ .

The legal consequences of the Zong massacre

As Additional story explains, slavers like William Gregson did not see captive Africans as people but as cargo. To recoup his losses, he filed an insurance claim, arguing that a navigational error had given the ship’s crew no choice but to jettison dozens of African captives to rescue the others.

His insurers refused to pay, so Gregson sued them. He won a legal victory which agreed that the murdered captives were the same as the lost cargo. But when the insurers appealed against the decision – arguing that the crew was at fault, but not that they had committed murder – the case landed on the desk of British judge Lord Mansfield.

“The case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard,” Mansfield noted. “This is a very shocking case…”

Lord Mansfield

Public domainLord Mansfield compared the massacre at Zong to throwing horses overboard.

The judge ordered a new trial to investigate allegations that the captain and his crew were at fault. But The Guardian notes that such a trial never took place, the Zong massacre has not been forgotten.

Instead, the story was picked up by Olaudah Equiano, a former slave abolitionist who was kidnapped from Africa when he was eight years old. Equiano informed anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp, who argued that Zong’s massacre was nothing less than murder. He even tried – in vain – to initiate criminal proceedings against the ship’s crew.

The crew was never charged, but the story of Zong’s massacre spread quickly. Sharp was able to enlist the help of local Quakers, who Additional story reports began their own campaign against the slave trade. Before long, abolitionism spread throughout England.

“The Zong Affair Lit the Touch Blue Paper in England,” James Walvin, who wrote a book about the Zong massacre titled The Zong: a massacre, the law and the end of slaverysaid The Guardian. “[I]t aroused the anger of abolitionists and fueled the first campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade.

Although Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, it took another few decades for the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 to end slavery in the British colonies.

Today, the Zong Massacre is a largely forgotten but important chapter in the terrible history of the Atlantic slave trade. Not only does it encapsulate the horrors some captive Africans faced at sea, but it also helped raise legal – and moral – questions about slavery itself.

After reading about the Zong Massacre, delve into the harrowing history of Igbo Landing, when dozens of captive Africans chose to drown rather than submit to slavery. Or learn the story of Queen Nzinga, the 17th-century African ruler who fought against slavers.


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