The Slave Ship

Among the titles in Brooklyn Law School Library’s June 6 New Book List is The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery by James Walvin. The book is a detailed account of the Zong, a Liverpool registered slave ship which left the small island of São Tomé off the western coast of Africa on September 6, 1781 for the 4,000 mile journey to Black River, Jamaica. On board the ship, designed to hold 200, were a total of 459 people: 440 African slaves and 19 crew members. Captain Luke Collingwood took on more slaves to maximize profits for the ship’s owner James Gregson. With overcrowding and insufficient water, slaves began to die from disease and malnutrition. As the ship passed through the mid-Atlantic Doldrums, sickness caused the deaths of 7 crew members and over 50 slaves. Soon after, Collingwood 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. Over the next week the remaining crew members threw 132 slaves who were sick and dying over the side. Another 10 slaves threw themselves overboard in what Collingwood later described as an “Act of Defiance.”

After arrival in Jamaica, Gregson filed an insurance claim for loss arguing 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 ship had 420 gallons of water aboard when she was inventoried in Jamaica. Despite this the Jamaican court found for the owners. The insurers appealed the case and in the process provoked a great deal of public interest and the attention of Great Britain’s abolitionists. Granville Sharp, the leading abolitionist of the time, used the deaths of the slaves to increase public awareness about the slave trade and further the anti-slavery cause. A London court found for the insurers and held that the cargo had been poorly managed as the captain should have made a suitable allowance of water for each slave. See the report of the case Gregson v. Gilbert, (1783) 3 Doug 232, 99 E.R. 629 through the BLS Library subscription to Justis, the online library of UK, Irish, EU and international case law and legislation.

Sharp, who first used the word massacre, tried unsuccessfully to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners. Justice John Lee, Great Britain’s Solicitor General, refused to file 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.” The tragedy of the Zong finally led to the passage 50 years later of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.