Fri | Jan 18, 2019

Anthony Gambrill | Remembering the Zong

Published:Wednesday | August 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The next time you're in Black River, find your way down the western side of the river near the bridge. Tasty Foods, a modest eating establishment, is behind the market, and in its parking lot in 2007 the Jamaica National Heritage Trust erected a monument to the 133 slaves who were thrown alive overboard from the slave ship Zong.

The occasion for the installation of the monument marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. The statue, for which the Trust is responsible for its maintenance, has been frequently vandalised and the accompanying display board spelling out its significance has faded and can no longer be read.

Events that took place in the 1780s over the issue of insurance claimed by the Zong's owners were to be the catalyst for the emergence of the abolition movement with the objective of ending the slave trade in Britain. Those events began with a series of mishaps that would lead to the inhumane fate of 133 slaves.

The 110-ton Zong, originally a Dutch slave ship named Zorgue, was captured by the British navy and sold to a syndicate of Liverpool slave traders headed by the Gregson brothers. By 1780, the Gregsons' vessels had already carried almost 60,000 of the 10 million who suffered the Middle Passage.

The Zong sailed from West Africa on August 18, 1781, bound for Jamaica with 422 slaves, more than double the number that it would have been expected to safely carry. Twelve weeks later, she entered the Caribbean Sea near Tobago, but failed to stop to replenish her water supply. Through a navigational error, Jamaica was at first misidentified as Santo Domingo, and before the error was corrected, the Zong was 300 miles beyond her intended Jamaican destination.

When did it start to go wrong? Its captain, Luke Collingwood, had most recently been the surgeon on another of the Gregson brothers' ships but apparently had no navigational skills. He fell ill shortly after the vessel had left Accra and his first mate, James Kelsall, had been suspended from duty for a misdemeanour.




The ship's only passenger Robert Stubb, at one time the captain of a slave-trading vessel, took over. As it happens, he was on his way to England, having been dismissed by the Royal African Company for being a drunkard, dishonest and incompetent.

By November, the ship had already lost 60 Africans and seven crew members through disease. Because of the unhealthy environment on board, a condition such as dysentery spread rapidly and diseases brought from Africa (possibly malaria) were also taking their toll. Overcrowding, malnutrition and accidents accounted for more deaths.

Collingwood, although gravely ill, was still the master of the ship. He was cognisant of the fact that if slaves died a 'natural death', according to maritime law, no insurance claim for their potential value could be made. With this in mind, he proposed to the crew that as the ship was running out of water, to save the remaining slaves, as well as the surviving crew members, those who were sick - not including the crew! - should be thrown overboard.

It was reported to a subsequent enquiry that he had said: "It would not be so cruel to throw the poor sick wretches into the sea as to suffer them to linger for a few days under which they are affected."

While some of the crew objected to this brutal treatment of the sick slaves, Collingwood prevailed. On November 29, 1781, fifty-four females were thrown overboard; a day later, 42 males; and the next day, 26 more. All were manacled. There were slaves on deck at the time these atrocities were taking place and, seeing the fate of their fellow countryman, spontaneously threw themselves into the sea. According to the records, one man changed his mind, seized a rope and climbed back on board. What took place on the Zong over the years has often been described as a 'massacre', defined in the dictionary as a cruel act of inhumanity.




It wasn't until December 21 that the Zong finally reached Black River. Only 114 of the originally 442 African men and women were landed. They were auctioned for an average price of £30 each and then dispersed to nearby plantations. The ship's logbook went missing after the vessel reached Jamaica; the ship's owners were later to deny that this was a deliberate act of sabotage.

It took another two years before the Gregsons were able to legally apply for compensation for their lost cargo. A trial was held on March 3, 1783, before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (who had already ruled that slavery in Britain was not legal in another case). Robert Stubbs was the only witness, Luke Collingwood having died.

The jury found for the shipping company after the insurance company had initially refused to compensate it. The basis for their decision was that the established maritime insurance protocol ruled that the slaves were simply considered cargo and not human beings, and that the captain and crew were not at fault.

It was at this point that Olaudah Equiano, an African himself, a former slave and a vocal advocate for the black community, brought the case to the attention of an Englishman, Granville Sharp. For 20 years Sharp had been a leading abolitionist arguing that enslaving Africans and subjecting them to cruel lives in captivity was morally wrong.

When the owners made an appeal again in front of Lord Mansfield and two other judges, the insurers argued that the slaves were killed in order that the owners could claim compensation. New evidence that it rained on the second day of the slaves being thrown overboard nullified the claim that the Zong had practically run out of water. In fact, when the vessel arrived in Black River, she was carrying more than 400 gallons of rainwater that had been collected.

The insurers pointed out that it was the result of navigational error that the ship went off course, taking days longer to reach its destination. The ship owners' advocate maintained that the slaves "perished just as a Cargo of Goods perished". The insurers replied that this argument could not justify the killing of innocent people. The lord chief justice ruled that a second trial should be held, but there is no evidence that it ever materialised.

In a 16-page letter to the Admiralty, Sharp made a case for prosecuting the captain and crew for murder. He pointed out that if they had realised the ship was near Jamaica the first time, the tragedy could have been averted. In fact, they did not discover the ship was short of water and had not even ordered short rations on the day the first of the slaves were jettisoned.

He built an unassailable case pointing out that murder on a British ship was legal grounds for prosecution. He invoked God and appealed to the defence that in their selfish interest for the sake of their own spiritual salvation, they should admit their guilt.

In the end, Sharp's protestations failed. However, to quote James Walvin, author of Black Ivory, "... A small band of men of sensitivity, outraged by events on the Zong, developed the first body of absolutionist feeling and action". Granville Sharp continued to make the abolition of slave-trading a "professional and personal crusade", according to Walvin. Yet, it was not until 1807 that Britain finally abolished it.




Dorick Gray, in charge of the Jamaica National Heritage Trust, was unavailable to comment as to the status of the Zong statue.

There is a small brick building that probably was the site of the slave auction on Farquharson's wharf. Dr Bennett, on whose property the statue was erected, would like to see it removed to a more secure site.

The Institute of Jamaica is in possession of Granville Sharp's missive to the Admiralty. On four display boards it reproduces his writings along with an interpretation of their content. It originally appeared in Prince Hoare's 1820 book Memoirs of Granville Sharp and was accessed for interpretation through a grant from the Canadian government. It has been displayed in the Black River Library.

Granville Sharp was remembered in Jamaica when the Reverend William Knibb named a small free-slave settlement Granville near Montego Bay. Luke Collingwood, captain of the Zong, died on arriving at Black River. Was he buried there or returned to Britain immersed in a barrel of alcohol to preserve his corpse, as was the practice at the time?

And the 114 slaves who survived the Middle Passage? They would have been purchased to work on nearby plantations. Alison Morris, who conducts tours of historic Black River, says for all she knows, she could be related to one of them!

Lord Mansfield died in March 1791. His memory is celebrated with statues and portraits in churches, universities and other public spaces. As James Walvin pointed out, but on the other hand, where are the memorials to those whose lives "were touched by the career of England's Lord Chief Justice?"

- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright and historian. Email feedback to