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Unravelling the Tragedy: The Zong Massacre of 1781

During the final days of November 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong, facing a shortage of water, threw overboard much of their ‘cargo’. 85 Ghanaian men, women, and children were thrown into the sea, 10 more slaves jumped in protest, and 62 had died previously due to malnutrition and disease. In total 142 slaves lost their lives due to the massacre.

English law accepted that ‘natural death’ (simply dying or committing suicide) was not covered by insurance. If Africans died in a shipwreck or were killed in a revolt, however, then “the insurers must answer”. For years, if a ship’s crew had to abandon ship, they would leave the Africans entombed below to a terrible fate.

In accordance with these business norms, insurance had been secured for the enslaved Africans. Following the arrival of the slaver ship at Black River, Jamaica, the owners of the Zong lodged a claim with their insurers for the loss of the enslaved Africans. When the insurers rejected the claim, subsequent legal proceedings established that, under certain circumstances, the killing of enslaved Africans was deemed legal. Moreover, it was ruled that in some circumstances, the murder of enslaved Africans was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for those who had died.

The Zong

Originally named Zorg, a Dutch word which ironically translates to 'Care' in English, The Zong was owned by Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie based in the Netherlands. In 1777, the ship made a voyage to Suriname in South America. After being seized by the British, on February 26th, The Zong arrived in Cape Coast, Ghana.

In 1787, the ship was acquired by William Gregson. As a way to curtail financial responsibility (as dying or dead slaves were considered to be worthless) all slaves were examined on board before setting sail, any that were deemed too unhealthy for travel were killed.

This drawing of the Liverpool slave ship 'Brooks' was commissioned by abolitionists to depict how Africans were crammed below decks.

On August 18th, 1781, the ship left Ghana with 442 slaves and 17 crew, twice the number of people it could safely transport.

On September the 6th after stopping at Sao Tome to restock for water, the crew headed on to Jamaica. On November 18th or 19th, the ship was due for another refill of water, but crew members didn't stop to fill the boat.

The Zong then sailed in an area in the mid-Atlantic known as “the Doldrums” because of periods of little or no wind. As the ship sat stranded, sickness caused the deaths of seven of the 17 crew members and over 50 slaves.

In Jamaica's waters, the crew made a critical navigational error, mistaking Jamaica for the French colony Saint-Domingue. Increasingly desperate, it was decided to “jettison” some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the ship owners the opportunity to claim for the loss on their insurance. On 29 November and over the days that followed, the crew forced 130 enslaved people overboard to their deaths. The crew claimed that they had been thrown overboard because the ship did not have enough water to keep everyone alive for the rest of the voyage – a claim later proven false.


If the enslaved people had died onshore, the ship-owners would have no redress from their insurers. Similarly, if they died a 'natural death' at sea, the insurance could not be claimed. If some were thrown overboard in order to save the rest of the 'cargo' or the ship, then a claim could be made for 'perils of the sea'. The ship's insurance covered the loss of enslaved people at £30 per person.

The Zong arrived at its destination on 22 December, it had just 208 enslaved Africans onboard. The remaining enslaved people were sold at an average price of £36 per person.

On its return to Britain, the owners of the ship commenced an action at the Guildhall in London claiming for the loss of the enslaved African people, described as 'lost cargo.' This was initially granted by the court (following a jury trial overseen by the Lord Chief Justice) and £3,660.00 was awarded to the ship owners.

An appeal was pursued by the insurers at the Court of the King's Bench in Westminster Hall. New evidence was heard, that despite heavy rain having fallen on the ship on the second day of the killings, a third group of enslaved people was still killed after that. It was concluded that the insurers were not liable for losses resulting from the errors committed by Zong's crew and another trial was ordered by the court. There is no evidence that another trial was held on the issue and unbelievably, no member of the crew was ever prosecuted for murder.


The Zong massacre did eventually gain both national and international attention. Granville Sharp (an anti-slave trade activist) campaigned to raise awareness of the Zong massacre, writing letters to newspapers, the Lord Commissioners of Admiralty and the Prime Minister. Bishops and Quakers critical of the slave trade began to campaign against slavery, with their petition based on the Zong massacre being one of the first submitted to Parliament.

Granville Sharp

The crew was never charged, but the story of the Zong Massacre quickly spread. Sharp was able to enlist the help of local Quakers, who began their own campaign against the slave trade. Before long, abolitionism spread across England.

“The Zong case lit the blue touch paper in England,” James Walvin, who wrote a book on the Zong Massacre called The Zong: A Massacre, the Law & the End of Slavery, told The Guardian. “[I]t aroused abolitionist anger, and fed into the initial campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade.”

In 1788 Parliament enacted the Slave Trade Act, which was the first piece of legislation to regulate the slave trade, leading to the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which prohibited the Atlantic slave trade.

The Zong Massacre remains a dark chapter in human history, a testament to the moral failures of an era that prioritized profit over humanity. It challenges us to confront the horrors of the past, ensuring that the victims are not forgotten and that the lessons learned contribute to the ongoing fight against injustice and inhumanity.

The Slave Ship (1840), J. M. W. Turner's representation of the mass killing of enslaved people, inspired by the Zong killings

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