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The Insurance-Scam Massacre of the Zong, 1781

The Zong Massacre of 1781 is a tragic story of African slave trade history. It's one of those gruesome events that generations of society have probably brushed off because it's too senseless to revisit. Nonetheless, one thing that we cannot allow is the minimisation of the impact caused by the transatlantic slave trade.

This story encompasses the cruel realities of slavery, in one pivotal act aboard a British slave ship - the Zong. During the month of August 1781, the Zong slave ship departed the coast of Africa, where we'd refer to as modern day 'Ghana' - bound for Jamaica. It was said to have 442 enslaved people on board - while other sources say there were 470. The fact of the matter is that the ship was way overcapacity for the number of people it was designed to carry. Slave owners back then would often carry more than what they were supposed to, as it was profitable for them to bring as many Africans across the Atlantic on a single trip.

On the course of the journey, the shippers responsible for the deadly voyage began to complain about experiencing navigational errors which meant the ship was to take longer to reach Jamaica. It was reported that the captain has sighted Jamaica by the 27th November, but he mistook it for the Dominican republic and sailed past it. Thus, it would take an extra 2-3 weeks to circle back to Jamaica - adding crucial additional journey time with already limited supplies.

As they reached what's known as the 'Middle Passage' otherwise known as 'the Doldrums' - an area in the middle of the Atlantic known for having periods of little to no wind ,the already horrifying conditions aboard the ship began to get much worse. The Middle Passage was described by author, Barry Unsworth as "as near as anyone has ever come to hell". Enslaved Africans had been travelling whilst chained together and forced to lie in unimaginably tight and unsanitary quarters below deck. The inhumane conditions and the journey's duration resulted in severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and the rapid spread of diseases like dysentery and smallpox. The captain of the ship Luke Collingwood, made a series of disastrous decisions that culminated in an unfathomable act of brutality known as the Zong Massacre.

As the ship had already lost 17 crew members and around 50 enslaved Africans had already died onboard, there was a growing shortage of supplies i.e. food, drinking water to nurse the growing population of unwell passengers, and the ship owners began to panic as they could no longer cope with the excess capacity coupled with the rippling atmosphere of the Doldrums. Collingwood decided to jettison a significant number of enslaved Africans overboard. His thought process was that if he did this, he could claim insurance money for the 'lost cargo'. To summarise this heinous sequence of events; rather than more enslaved people passing from the horrendous conditions on the Zong, the captain thought it would be wiser if he threw them overboard, because at least that way he'd recoup the losses of his human cargo through an insurance claim. The rationale behind this atrocious act was that the value of the enslaved people would be recouped as insurance, whereas if they died of natural causes, the insurance claim would not be valid.

Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.
Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage []

On November 29th, 1781, out of fear of losing profit, over 100 lives were traded into the sea. Collingwood had "133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard; the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death" (Shyllon, 1974). It is said that those that were forcibly thrown overboard to their deaths either drowned or were attacked by sharks. The incident only came to light when the ship reached Jamaica, and the horrifying revelation sparked condemnation and public outrage and condemnation.

This sparked the case of Gregson v. Gilbert, an insurance trial that became a signal of the blood-chilling logic that underpinned the laws fortifying the atrocities of the slave-system. However, the case did not come without scrutiny, as insurers suspected a scam in the way the enslaved people were "lost" overboard - but a court jury sided with the claimant shippers. Despite the attempts of anti-slavery campaigners like Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano to keep pushing for a homicide investigation, rather than the event to be portrayed as some sort of uproar-turned-suicide dive, committed by over 100 enslaved Africans.

Eventually, the insurers recalled their pursuit for injustice and took a neutral or safe stance toward the matter. They posed as "counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general” (Headsman, 2009) - better to not go down this slippery slope, is what I imagine they were thinking. After-all, they too were in the business of keeping slaves, and what good would it have done them to openly condemn such a gruesome act - if it meant they were condemning themselves? And so their interests were best served by the least safeguarding for the enslaved people.

Because of the lax resolution the insurers offered, a solicitor was appointed to look at the details of the case. This solicitor General John Lee, conveniently reasoned that it would be most appropriate to stick to the commercial aspects of the case, not the ethical side of things. In part of his conclusion of the case he wrote:

"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. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgement of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard."

- General John Lee

And then all it took was for Lord Mansfield, who presided as Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1756 to 1783 to agree, that the case of slaves was the same as horses. He ruled that the insurers were right to take a step back, as there was "no liability attached to them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary"(Headsman, 2009). And so no-one was ever prosecuted.

The Zong slave ship and the infamous massacre that occurred aboard it stand as a stark reminder of the inhumanity of the transatlantic slave trade. The vessel and its cruel journey epitomise the depths of human suffering inflicted upon millions of Africans who endured unspeakable horrors during their forced migration across the Atlantic.

Events like this are pivotal because they have left an ineffaceable mark on African history and centuries of slavery. The legacy of the Zong and its victims serves as a solemn reminder of the need to remember and learn from this dark chapter of human history, striving to build a more compassionate and just future for all.



F.O.Shyllon (1974) 'Black Slaves in Britain' - available at here

Headsman (2009) '1781: The Slaves of the Zong, for the insurance'

Image of underwater sculpture of Grenada - Headsman (2009) '1781: The Slaves of the Zong, for the insurance' - [] - available at here


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