Another Hidden Horror
They Don’t Teach About Slavery
The following is a recount of one of the most horrific acts of brutality committed by the British against newly acquired African slaves and the ensuing outcry that eventually led to the end of slavery in England and it is story that has been largely wiped away from the history books.
The incident occurred when British Empire was the most wide-ranging imperialist force, extending around the world, including expansive territories in Jamaica.
The matter involved the British slave vessel with the unlikely name, the Zong, and how its crew threw 122 slaves overboard to their deaths and how the mass murder drew the attention of a horrified British nation and hastened the end of slavery in the 18th century.
The Zong was originally named Zorg meaning “Care” in Dutch by its owners, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie. It was later sold to William Gregson, a British slave trader who was responsible for at least 152 slave voyages, and his slave ships are recorded as having carried 58,201 Africans, of whom 9,148 died.
On an Sept. 6, 1781, the Zong set sail from Accra, the capitol of Ghana, with its “cargo” of 442 newly enslaved Africans. Slaves were such a valuable commodity that many ships took on more slaves than their ships could safely transport in order to maximize profits. In the case of the Zong, it had double the number of people a ship its size could safely transport. The ship was running low on water and the journey had taken too long because of a navigation error and it was vital to make up lost time to reach the destination in Jamaica and sell the slaves. But the load of human “cargo” was slowing down the ship and the crew voted to jettison 122 Africans over the course of several days, knowing that the shipping company could be compensated under British law for the loss of human cargo. There would be no insurance compensation if the enslaved people died onshore or of a “natural death.” If some enslaved people were thrown overboard in order to save the rest of the “cargo” or the ship, a claim could be made under “general average,” a principle that holds that a captain who dispensed part of his cargo in order to save the rest can claim for the loss from his insurers. The Zong arrived in Black River, Jamaica on Dec. 22, 1781,, with 208 enslaved people on board.
A trial began on June 22, 1783, not to hold the crew accountable for the mass murders but to determine if the lost “cargo”was covered by insurance. The Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in London said a massacre of enslaved Africans “was the same as if horses had been thrown over board.” The court found that the insurance company was liable for the damages, as enslaved people were the same as any other cargo. Two months later, the Chief Justice overturned the decision due to new evidence but his statement that the enslaved were equivalent to horses remained the opinion of Britain’s highest court.
Olaudah Equiano, a formerly enslaved man and abolitionist, knew of the murders on the Zong and relayed the story to abolitionist Granville sharp. Equiano was enslaved as a child in what is now the nation of Nigeria and was taken to the Caribbean and sold as a slave to a Royal Navy officer. He was sold twice more but purchased his freedom in 1766.
Sharp pressed the court to have the crew tried for murder and while he was rebuffed, the story was publicized and created momentum for the abolitionist movement. Sharp was one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade and he, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce formed the colony of Sierra Leone in 1787 after several waves of free Black settlers arrived from England, Nova Scotia and Jamaica. The free Blacks had agreed to fight for England during the American Revolutionary War, and in return they were granted freedom. The offer attracted thousands of slaves to New York City, which was occupied by the British, and in the South, where its troops occupied Charleston, S.C. When British troops were evacuated at the end of the war, their officers also evacuated the American slaves who were resettled in the Caribbean, in Nova Scotia, in Sierra Leone and in London. Britain refused to return the slaves, which the United States sought in peace negotiations.
Two further waves of settlers came to Sierra Leone in 1792 and 1800 and included 1,200 Blacks from Nova Scotia, and 550 Maroons who had been exiled from Jamaica following the 1795 Maroon War.
The Maroons were slaves who escaped from their plantations to set up communities of free Black people in the mountains of Jamaica. The Marroons fought the colonial British authorities in two wars, first in 1740 and again in 1790, with both campaigns ending in stalemates. The Maroons’ major tactic is considered the forerunner of modern guerilla warfare. The second war ended in another stalemate after eight months of war involving 5,000 British troops and militia, who outnumbered the Maroons ten to one.
One earlier result of the Zong massacre was passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1788, also known as Dolben’s Act, after Sir William Dolben. It was the first British legislation passed to regulate slave shipping and limited the number of enslaved people that British slave ships could transport. The act held that ships could transport 1.67 slaves per ton up to a maximum of 207 tons, after which only 1 slave per ton could be carried.
During Parliamentary debate, Dolben argued that 10,000 lives would be lost if the House did not immediately intervene to curtail the abuses perpetrated during the Middle Passage, the stage of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were forcibly transported to the Americas as part of the triangular slave trade.
After the Zong trial, the Society of Friends and the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade convinced Parliament to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade in 1807 and abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.