The Zong was originally named Zong (meaning “Care” in Dutch). Zong was a square stern of 110 burden slave ship. In early March of 1781 the Zong was purchase by William and James Gregson. The Gregson named Luke Collingwood a surgeon as captain of the Zong. Collingwood lacked experience in navigation and command, but he was a surgeon and surgeons were typically involved in selecting slaves for purchase in Africa. Their medical expertise supported the determination of “commodity value” for a captive.

On September 6, 1781 the slave ship Zong departed the coast of Africa with 470 slaves and 17 crew member. Since this human chattel was such a commodity at the time, Captain Collingwood took more slaves than the Zong could accommodated in order to maximize profits. The Zong was built to carry 1.75 enslaved people per ton of the ship’s capacity, the Zong ratio was 4.0 per ton.


The Atlantic Slave Trade was a common business practice that it was normal that the owners of slave ships took out insurance on the Cargo, slaves was consider as Cargo. The ship’s insurance covered the loss of slaves at 30 Euro’s a head.

On September 19 the ship was near Tobago in the Caribbean but failed to stop in Tobago and replenish the water supplies, Fear if they make too many stops it the enslaved on board would start a rebellion. By November 29, 1781 Captain Collingwood was gravely ill, Several of the crew men died and many of the enslaved African begun to die from overcrowding, accidents, disease, malnutrition, and lack of water, While the Captain Collingwood was sick it’s not clear who was in charge of the ship navigation. On the next day the crew sighted Jamaica at a distance of 27 nautical miles, but misidentified it as the French colony of Saint Dominque on the island of Hispaniola. The Zong continues on its westward course, leaving Jamaica behind. This mistake was only recognized only after the ship was 300 miles out. One of the Crew men that took charge when the Captain was sick James Kelsall let the remaining crew men know there was only four days’ of water left and Jamaica was 10-13 sailing days away he would later testify in court.

On December 2, 1781 the crew gathered and to come up with a plan, realizing if the enslaved Africans died onshore, the ship owners would have had no redress from their insurers. Which mean if the slaves died a “natural death” at sea, then then insurance could not be claimed. If some of the slaves were jettisoned in order to save the rest of the “cargo” or the ship, then a claim could be made under the notion of “general average”.

The crew assemble to consider the proposal that some of the slaves should be thrown overboard. Kelsall later testified he disagreed with the plan at first but soon agreed that throwing the enslave Africans overboard to save the ship. 54 women and children slaves were thrown through cabin windows into the sea. On the next day 42 male slaves were thrown overboard, 36 more slaves followed the same fate in the next few days. Others in a display of defiance at the inhumanity of the slavers and jumped into the sea. One slave requested that the remaining enslaved Africans be denied all food and water rather be thrown into the sea. The request was ignored and they too meant the same fate.


Upon the Zong’s arrival in Jamaica, James Gregson, the ship’s owner, filed an insurance claim for their loss. Gregson argued that the Zong did not have enough water to sustain both crew and the human commodities. The insurance underwriter, Thomas Gilbert, disputed the claim citing that the Zong had 420 gallons of water aboard when she was inventoried in Jamaica. Despite this the Jamaican court in 1782 found in favor of the owners. The insurers appealed the case in 1783 and in the process provoked a great deal of public interest and the attention of leading abolitionist at the time Granville Sharp. Sharp used the deaths of the slaves to increase public awareness about the slave trade and further the anti-slavery cause.  It was Sharp who first used the word massacre.


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 favor of the insurers. He also held that the cargo had been poorly managed as the captain should have made a suitable allowance of water for each slave.

Sharp attempted to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners but was unsuccessful. Great Britain’s The Solicitor General, Justice John Lee, however, 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.





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