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Kris Manjapra | The Zong and the ocean’s voice

Published:Sunday | December 27, 2020 | 12:06 AM

People offer flowers at Black River, St Elizabeth, in this 2015 file photo. They were participating in a ceremony to remembrance of the Zong Massacre between November 29 and December 1, 1781.
People offer flowers at Black River, St Elizabeth, in this 2015 file photo. They were participating in a ceremony to remembrance of the Zong Massacre between November 29 and December 1, 1781.
The plaque in the memory of the Zong Massacre in Black River, 
St Elizabeth.
The plaque in the memory of the Zong Massacre in Black River, St Elizabeth.
Kris Manjapra
Kris Manjapra

The Gleaner presents the fourth article in the bimonthly guest column, ‘Reparation Conversations’. Today, historian Dr Kris Manjapra from Tufts University and a Network Scholar at the Centre for Reparation Research reminds us of the tragedy of the slaver Zong that arrived in Black River, Jamaica, on December 22, 1781, and the ways in which lives lost on that journey inspire our historical consciousness and the resurgent demands for reparation.

First, they threw overboard the women and children. On the slaver Zong, the crew chained together 54 people and threw them into the sea. It was November 29, 1781. Apparently, the enslavers were anxious about a shortage of drinking water on- board after the ship oddly lost its course on the slaving voyage to Jamaica. Another 42 captive Africans were murdered two days later, on December 1. Again, some days on, yet another 26 captives on the ship were thrown to the sharks. Ten others committed suicide by jumping overboard to escape the horror of pending execution.

Captain Luke Collingwood and his crew, working for the Liverpool-based Gregsons slaving syndicate, continued their work of barbarity over a period of many days. In this incident of mass murder and human rights atrocities, 132 enslaved Africans, primarily from Ghana, were killed, while 208 enslaved persons survived the terror. As Fred D’Aguiar’s novel Feeding the Ghosts explores, the survivors were nonetheless forced to witness the mass lynching of their friends and loved ones. The Zong, a torture ship and execution vessel, finally reached the port of Black River, Jamaica, on December 22, 1781. Today, we commemorate the wanton and unatoned destruction of African lives, as well as the endurance of ancestors. As in M. NourbeSe Philip’s extended poem, Zong!, we pause in the space between words to recognise that African lives thrown overboard were not simply obliterated, but reconfigured into the submarine life of the sea. Today, their lost lives also inspire our historical consciousness and the resurgent demands for reparation for the atrocities of slavery and its aftermaths.

The prolonged terrorisation, torture, and killing of African people on board the Zong was done with impunity. In fact, the owners of the ship even demanded compensation from their insurance underwriters of £30 for each murdered African. In London, a famous court hearing resulted, presided over by William Murray, known as Lord Chief Justice Mansfield. The judges deliberated whether murderers of enslaved Africans should receive cash payments for their deeds. The question about what punishment was due Collingwood and his crew for their human rights abuses, and what reparation was due the enslaved, was never raised. The Zong’s legal proceedings, concluded in 1783, took place under the code of white supremacy. Although the enslavers were not granted the perverse insurance compensation requested, the perpetrators were also never held to account.

The heinous deeds aboard the Zong, as well as the forms of legal remedy that followed, were only possible because of the larger context of racial slavery, in which Africans were not recognised as legal persons (Mansfield likened the Africans to “horses” in his court statement). Africans were treated as things to be used, abused, exhausted and destroyed without consequence – as means to European world-supremacist ends. Under the regime of European and American white supremacy, even the supposed remedies for the legacies of racial slavery are tinged with affliction.


European and American white supremacism has continued across centuries, creating a continuity between the time of the Zong and our own time. This supremacism is characterised by a dissociative complex: the insistent denial of responsibility for the real historical crimes and consequences of racial slavery, and the ongoing compulsion to flagrantly misuse and abuse human interconnectedness, at the expense of people of the global African diaspora.

The Zong reminds us, however, that the beneficiaries of racial slavery not only captured profit from the life and labour of millions of hereditarily enslaved African people. They also captured profit by monetising the murder of African peoples. Slavery was not just about using up African people’s life. It was also about cashing in on their death. For hundreds of years under the regime of racial slavery, banks, insurance firms, and governments compensated their clients for killing black people. Slavery made money from the death camps that floated on water and that settled the plantation lands. The atrocities on board the Zong were the rule, not the exception, of the transatlantic seaborne trade. What happened on the Zong merely condensed what already permeated slavery’s social climate.

Firms such as Lloyd’s of London and Royal & Sun Alliance were among the many insurance firms reaping great fortunes by insuring slave ships. These insurers perversely paid enslavers for the cargo price of African dead souls. In 1835, in the midst of Emancipation, the Rothschild Bank made a huge loan deal with the British government, allowing the Rothschild syndicate to profiteer, while also enabling the British government to pay enslavers for the emancipation of the African people on their plantations.

With money from the Rothschild loan, the British state also paid its enslavers for missing and murdered enslaved people. This was a well-established practice across the British plantation colonies, going all the way back to the Barbados Black Code of 1661, in which the colonial administration promised to compensate whites who raised posses to hunt down and murder fugitive African people. In the natural order of things, mass murder destabilises societies and the interrelations between societies, leading to the unsustainable outcome of ongoing disorder and conflict. The death cult of racial slavery, which made killing profitable for centuries, was only possible because of the European and American white supremacist governmental system that enabled it.


Thousands of death ships just like the Zong sailed the oceans in the time of slavery. They were each floating crime scenes. Recently, a group of research divers has been bringing greater scrutiny and public awareness to these marine death sites. Diving with a Purpose (DWP) is a reparative justice organisation devoted to studying sunken slavers, using the latest techniques and tools of nautical archaeology. One of DWP’s chief divers, Kamau Sadiki, recently led the nautical research into the slaver, São José Paquete de Africa, that sank off the coast of Mozambique in 1794, resulting in the death of 212 captive Africans. The work of DWP was also lately featured in the six-part miniseries Enslaved, directed by Simcha Jacobovici, with Samuel Jackson and Afua Hirsch. Among many other expeditions, the series highlights DWP’s search for the wreckage of the Leusden off the coast of Suriname. In 1738, as historian Leo Balai’s work shows, African captives were nailed below deck during a storm, and forced to slowly drown while the captain and crew remained on deck. The miniseries also tells the story of The London, a British ship that carried captured freedom fighters from St Lucia to Bristol, where they were to be re-enslaved. In 1796, The London wrecked off the coast of Devon, England, and remains from the ship are sedimented into the shoals of Rapparee Cove to this day.

Each of the tragedies listed above generated insurance payouts for maritime merchants and investors. Racial slavery’s crimes against humanity fold in on each other. The kidnapping and incarcerating of African people on to ships tore them from their families, communities, native tongues, and indigenous systems of law. Yet, once upon the ship, as also upon the plantation lands, not only were the enslaved stripped of all protection, but a whole economic and moral system of incentives was at work that encouraged the barbarism and sadism of enslavers. Under slavery, it paid to kill.

The evidence of historical crimes against humanity do not disappear simply because they are ignored, denied, or sunken into the sea. The Atlantic Ocean is a tomb that holds the reconfigured futures of our ancestors who were thrown overboard. Unacknowledged and unredressed mass human rights abuses do not go away with the passage of time. Their consequences ripple out. And they resurface again and again until atonement is made. As Freddie Hickling taught, reparations is a necessary therapeutic for an ongoing ‘psychosis’ affecting the Western world: the European-American psychosis of white supremacy.

Dr Kris Manjapra is associate professor of history at Tufts University and a network scholar at the Centre for Reparation Research. Send feedback to