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Abolition Watch: Massacre on the 'Zong' - outrage against humanity
published: Sunday | July 1, 2007

Photo by Cecily Wilson
This replica of the 18th century ship, the 'Zong', serves as a graphic reminder of the atrocious conditions endured by Africans during the transatlantic slave trade, and which played a pivotal role in the eventual abolition of the trade.

This is a regular feature which will be published by The Sunday Gleaner as its contribution to the work of the Jamaica National Bicentenary Committee. It will highlight different aspects of the transatlantic trade in Africans, to enhance public education up to the end of the bicentenary observance in February 2008.

Ahmed Reid and Verene Shepherd, Contributors

The Jamaica National Bicentenary Committee (JNBC) begins a series of articles focusing on the experiences of individual ships involved in the transatlantic trade in Africans to Jamaica (TTA) and on its victims. We begin with the story of the Zong; for by the standards of the 18th century, or any era for that matter, the events on-board the Zong were shocking, with no equal in barbarity. The decision by Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, to throw overboard 133 live Africans has assumed a canonical form as it embodies the horrors of the TTA. It is an important partof St. Elizabeth's and Jamaica's history which needs to be exposed; and its victims need to be memorialised in some tangible way.

The Zong was originally a Dutch ship which had been captured by the British. Apparently, its original Dutch name was Zorg, meaning 'care'; but Zorg was misread as Zong by the British. By 1781 the vessel was owned by a consortium of influential Liverpool merchants - John, William and James Gregson, Edward Wilson and James Aspinall. Their acquisition and outfitting of the Zong was part and parcel of a system that brought economic growth and prosperity to Liverpool. In fact, so viable was the shipping enterprise that by 1780, it was estimated that as many as 85 slavers left Liverpool for the West Coast of Africa. The Zong left Merseyside, Liverpool, on March 5, 1781 for the West African Coast. On-board was Luke Collingwood, first captain, and Edward Howard, second captain. They were supported by a crew of 20, mostly men drawn from Liverpool and its immediate surroundings. Luke Collingwood was an experienced seaman, having undertaken a previous voyage to West Africa for the same consortium.

Hapless African victims

The date the Zong arrived in West Africa is not listed, however, the records do show that it traversed the Gold Coast and in particular, the Cape Coast, Anomabu, Adja and Agga, looking for hapless African victims to kidnap and transport to Jamaica. On September 6, 1781, a total of 440 Africans faced a life and a future of uncertainty as the Zong left the Gold Coast for Jamaica.

The large number of Africans and the cramped and inhumane conditions on-board caused sickness and death to characterise the journey of the Zong. The Africans were afflicted with dysentery, fever, diarrhoea, small pox and some respiratory-related illnesses. Based on the evidence, as many as 60 Africans died within seven weeks of the voyage. But the death toll would rise as Collingwood had to determine what to do with the many other Africans who fell ill. If those who were ill eventually died from natural causes, the merchants or the consortium would have to absorb the financial loss; but the insurers would pay, the captain reasoned, if it could be proven that the Africans drowned. This again reinforces the fact that the trade was one of enterprise and returns and had little to do with human existence and welfare. In the ensuing court case, deposition by chief mate, Colonel James Kelsal, outlined how Collingwood met with his crew to outline his murderous plans.

Within a few days, 133 Africans whom the crew thought were least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle, then thrown overboard, weighing them down with balls. Some 55 Africans were thrown overboard on November 29, and 42 on November 30. In his defence, Collingwood posited that the lack of water influenced his decision, but Kelsal noted that there was a heavy downfall of rain on November 30, which could provide fresh water for 11 days. In fact, when the ship arrived in Black River on December 28, it had over 400 gallons of fresh water on-board. Despite this, 26 more Africans were thrown overboard on December 1, while 10, in a last act of defiance, committed suicide. Some historians claim that one African managed to climb back on-board.

Refused to honour loss

It should be stressed that the case of the Zong was brought to court on March 6, 1783 (Gregson vs. Gilbert) - not because a case of mass murder was being brought against Collingwood and his crew, but because the underwriters refused to honour the 30 per African loss, which the Liverpool consortium was demanding. The insurers underscored their refusal with the argument that they saw no justifiable means for the mass murder. They argued, and justifiably so, that Collingwood did not execute his full professional responsibility, as contrary to his protestations, evidence existed which showed there was sufficient water on board the ship.

A second trial was ordered and this time the case was presided overby Lord Mansfield in the Court of the King's Bench. Here, the underwriters reiterated their position that it was negligence on Collingwood's part and that the owners, not the insurers, were liable it may seem that justice was dispensed, the essence of the legal proceedings was not culpability for the murder of 133 Africans. In fact, it was not even an issue; rather, it was the liability of the insurers that was in question. This was the most appalling and sordid part of the entire proceedings. Even more gut-wrenching was the pronouncement by Chief Justice Mansfield, who is widely acclaimed as bringing justice to freed blacks in England (1772 Somerset Case), that the case before the jury was whether it was necessary that the Africans were thrown into the sea, for they had no doubt that 'the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard'.

The Zong arrived in Black River on December 28, 1781, with 208 Africans, 232 less than it had when it departed the African Coast - a mortality rate of 53 per cent. This ranks among the ships with the highest mortality rate and is noteworthy because the largest number of deaths was deliberate and premeditated. Even more disturbing is the fact that the journey took an inordinately long period of 112 days, compared to the average 60-day length of Middle Passage journeys. Two famous activists emerged from the Zong massacre - Thomas Clarkson, who wrote an 'Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species', and James Ramsay, who wrote an 'Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the Sugar Colonies'.

The Zong incident, exposed initially by Olaudah Equianao, who gave details of it to Granville Sharp, creating an anti-slavery uproar, was clearly "an outrage against humanity", and serves as a gruelling reminder of the atrocities committed against our ancestors and the vagaries of a system that continued for too long.

The JNBC hopes to join with the people of St. Elizabeth to memorialise the victims of the Zong on the anniversary of the incident in December 2007.

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