Wed | Jan 27, 2021

Letter of the Day | Lest we forget – Zong massacre

Published:Tuesday | December 22, 2020 | 12:07 AM


Today, December 22, should never be forgotten by Jamaicans. On this day in 1781, the slaver Zong, (renamed Richard of Jamaica), one of 10 ships to have disembarked Africans in Black River from 1781-1791, docked after a long voyage from modern-day Ghana. Seized from the Dutch (as Zorgue) and sold to a Liverpool syndicate led by William Gregson, the Zong was captained by Luke Collingwood.

The overcrowded ship with 442 Africans onboard, including 244 already on board when it was seized, left Accra on August 18, 1781, making a stop in Sao Tomé before embarking on the Middle Passage journey on September 6, 1781.

Ten weeks later, it arrived in Tobago, after which it continued on its journey to Black River, but it veered off-course near Haiti, losing time. By then, complaints of water shortage, illness, and death among the crew and poor navigational and leadership decisions all created a level of confusion aboard. Towards the end of November, approximately 62 Africans had died.

With the captain and crew arguing that water and rations would not last for everyone on board before arrival in Jamaica, the decision was taken to jettison some Africans to avoid more deaths and threaten the profitability of the undertaking. Between November 29 and when the ship arrived in Jamaica, 122 African men, women, and children had been drowned by the crew, some of the men handcuffed and iron balls tied to their ankles. Ten Africans jumped rather than be pushed by the crew. Only 208 arrived alive, a mortality rate of 53 per cent.

Despite the activism of abolitionists like Olaudah Equiano and Granville Sharpe, no one was held criminally responsible for the massacre. The ship’s owners claimed insurance for the dead Africans using the maritime law of “general average”, and eventually had a judgment in their favour. The insurers appealed and the first judgment was overturned. But the court cases intensified the anti-slavery campaign, provoked a great deal of public outrage at the callous conduct of the crew, who, as it turns out, did have extra water when the ship arrived in Jamaica, as well as caused anger against those who presided over the trial or sought to defend the owners, Lord Mansfield and Justice Lee, reducing the Africans to “horses” and “cargo”.

This massacre is a testimony to the cruelty of the colonial British and justifies the demand for reparatory justice for such colonial wrongs.


Centre for Reparation


The University of the

West Indies