It had been a grim sea voyage across the Atlantic.
|No mercy: slaves thrown overboard|
Dysentery, diarrhoea and small pox had already claimed the lives of seven crew members aboard the Zong. The slaves were suffering a far higher mortality rate. At least 62 had already died since leaving the shores of Africa. As Captain Luke Collingwood searched in vain for the coast of Jamaica, their destination, he grew increasingly alarmed.
Every slave that died meant less profit for him. He knew that the ship’s insurers would not cover the cost of his lost human cargo: as each slave was worth about £30, he stood to lose a fortune.
|Life aboard: cramped|
On 29 November, 1781, Captain Collingwood was struck by deeply macabre idea. He called together the ship’s officers and suggested that they throw some of the slaves overboard.
His reasoning was callous in the extreme: if the slaves died of illness, their insurance value was lost. But if they were deliberately cast overboard in order to preserve the ship’s scant supply of water (and thereby save the lives of others), then an insurance claim would be valid under a legal principle known as the ‘general average’.
|Slave auction: big money|
The Zong’s First Mate, James Kelsall, was appalled by the captain’s proposal. He said it was cold-blooded murder. But Collingwood insisted that it would be ‘less cruel to throw the sick wretches into the sea than to suffer them to linger out a few days, under the disorder with which they were afflicted.’
After much persuasion, Kelsell changed his mind and agreed with the captain and other officers. The weakest slaves were to be pitched overboard that very day.
Captain Collingwood went below decks to select his ‘parcel’ of victims: on that first day, he decided to concentrate on the women and children, probably because he thought they would put up less of a struggle. A total of 54 were hurled out of the cabin windows and flailed in the sea before eventually drowning.
Two days later, on 1 December, Collingwood decided to throw out another ‘parcel’: this time, they were all men: a total of 42. It proved so easy to kill them that he decided to hurl even more overboard. It would gain him the largest possible sum of money from the insurers.
|Zong massacre, as seen by Turner|
He ordered another 36 were to be thrown into the seas, only on this occasion it proved more difficult. The slaves refused to go to their deaths without a struggle and Collingwood’s crew were forced to chain the men by the ankle and weigh down with balls of iron in order that they would sink immediately.
‘The arms of twenty-six were fettered with irons and the savage crew proceeded with the diabolical work, casting them down to join their comrades of the former days.’ So reads a contemporary account of the massacre.
|Life aboard: brutal, harsh and often short|
Ten of the slaves were so terrified by their fate that they leaped overboard before the captain had the chance to have them weighted.
Three weeks after the last murders, the Zong finally reached Jamaica with 208 slaves still aboard. They were sold for an average price of £36 each.
Captain Collingwood did not have long to enjoy the money: he died within three days of making landfall. But his death - and those of the slaves - was not the end of the story.
The ship’s owners now filed an insurance claim for the 142 slaves that had been thrown overboard. They hoped to recuperate nearly £4,000 in jettisoned ‘cargo’.
Thus began one of the most shocking court cases in British judicial history. The jury initially sided with the ship's owners, insisting that the insurers pay up the money. But the insurers appealed and asked for the case to be retried: this time, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, heard the case.
|Slaves: not humans, but merely 'cargo'|
He agreed with the verdict of the first trial: ‘The case of slaves,’ he said, ‘was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. . . . The question was, whether there was not an absolute necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest…’
At this point in the trial, an unexpected piece of evidence was brought to light. The ship’s owners had argued that the slaves had been killed because there was not enough water aboard. But this was not true. When the ship arrived at Jamaica, it still had more than 420 imperial gallons of water in its barrels.
|Shackled to speed up the drowning|
Ultimately - and shockingly - the ship’s owners won the day. The insurers were forced to pay up for the ‘cargo’ that had been dumped at sea.
The English abolitionist, Granville Sharp, was appalled and tried to bring forward a case of murder.
This was brushed aside by Lord Mansfield ‘What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard?’ he said. ‘This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honorable men of murder.’
It was one of the darkest days for British judicial system. And it would be another two decades before Great Britain finally abolished the slave trade.
‘Giles Milton has a rare ability – a talent for sifting fine pearls from faraway sands and for transmuting the merely arcane into little literary gems.’ Simon Winchester
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