The slave ship Zong was under the command of Luke Collingwood. The voyage from the African coast, which set sail on 6th September 1781 which probably open the eyes of the British public to the selfish cruelty of the slave-traders more than any other.
As was common practice, the crew packed on many more slaves than there was room for and, as a result, disease and malnutrition had claimed the lives of seven white men and sixty African slaves by 29th November. In his book 'Black Slaves in Britain", Shyllon writes;
"Chained two by two, right leg and left leg, right hand and left hand, each slave had less room than a man in a coffin."
It was on that very day, 29th November 1781, that Luke Collinwood decided that all remaining sick Africans should be thrown overboard to protect the crew and the remaining cargo of slaves. It is said that he assembled the crew and explained that throwing the slaves overboard whilst they were still alive, for the safety of the ship, would result in the ship's underwriters bearing the cost. Allowing the slaves to die a natural death on board would make it the loss the crew's responsibility. European law, at this time, stated;
The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.
The ship was in the joint ownership of James Gregson and a number of other slave-dealers in Liverpool. Collingwood decided to act in the best interests of himself and the owners by throwing the live slaves overboard. His attempt to use the law in his favour by throwing 133 slaves overboard over a three day period was misjudged, as the ship was not in any danger. One slave did manage to escape and climb back onboard. Shyllon reports;
The last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death, and adds;
Once again, I think that the Africans aboard the Zong as well as any other slave ship should be considered brave for enduring the painful, inhumane conditions they had to experience. Even when it came down to the seamen throwing the captured slaves over the boat, there were still ten people who faced death with a lot of courage.
When the owners attempted to claim the full value of the murdered slaves from the insurers, the company refused to settle. They discovered that the claim that the slaves had to be thrown overboard because of water depletion was untrue as it was later proven that the captain had an opportunity to take on water on 1st December and when the Zong landed in Jamaica on 22nd December, there was 420 gallons of water to spare.
The claim became a court case heard during March 1783 in London (Gregson v. Gilbert). Although this famous case did not result in a change in the law, it did bring many new recruits to support the abolitionists and inspired the Quakers to present a petition for the abolition of the slave trade. It is interesting to note that the case was not about the slaves, their murder or the actions of Luke Collingwood and his crew; it was simply a matter of a fraudulent insurance claim. The murder of 132 human lives was not at issue.
Image showing slaves being thrown overboard from the "Zong"