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The Zong

The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery

James Walvin
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    The Zong
    Book Description:

    On November 29, 1781, Captain Collingwood of the British shipZongcommanded his crew to throw overboard one-third of his cargo: a shipment of Africans bound for slavery in America. The captain believed his ship was off course, and he feared there was not enough drinking water to last until landfall. This book is the first to examine in detail the deplorable killings on theZong, the lawsuit that ensued, how the murder of 132 slaves affected debates about slavery, and the way we remember the infamousZongtoday.Historian James Walvin explores all aspects of theZong's voyage and the subsequent trial-a case brought to court not for the murder of the slaves but as a suit against the insurers who denied the owners' claim that their "cargo" had been necessarily jettisoned. The scandalous case prompted wide debate and fueled Britain's awakening abolition movement. Without the episode of theZong, Walvin contends, the process of ending the slave trade would have taken an entirely different moral and political trajectory. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of how the case of theZong, though unique in the history of slave ships, has come to be understood as typical of life on all such ships.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18075-6
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations and Maps
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. x-xi)
  6. [Map]
    (pp. None)
  7. CHAPTER 1 A painting and a slave ship
    (pp. 1-11)

    On 19 March 1783 Granville Sharp, a humble clerk in the Ordnance Office, but already well-known to England’s black community for his indefatigable efforts on their behalf, noted in his diary: ‘Gustavas Vasa a Negro called on me with an account of 130 Negroes being thrown Alive into the sea from on Board an English Slave Ship.’¹ Thanks mainly to a detailed report in a London newspaper, the news of the killings quickly spread. To many, even the bare details seemed scarcely credible. In the last weeks of 1781, the crew of theZong, a Liverpool-registered slave ship, had thrown...

  8. CHAPTER 2 The city built on slavery
    (pp. 12-26)

    When theZongwas purchased by a group of Liverpool merchants in 1781, that city was the dominant force in the Atlantic slave trade: by the time the British slave trade ceased in 1807, one in six or seven Africans who had crossed the Atlantic had done so in a Liverpool-registered ship. By that point, Liverpool had become synonymous with the slave trade, but its inexorable rise had come on the back of a flourishing maritime business in many different cargoes, not solely human. The city’s coastal trade remainedthedominant form of Liverpool’s trade throughout the eighteenth century, and...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Crews and captives
    (pp. 27-55)

    Gregson’s newly acquired slave ship, theZong, was an unusual vessel for the 1780s. At 110 tons, she was relatively small, and when she finally set out on her Atlantic crossing, on 6 September 1781, she was carrying 459 people. Though the economics of the slave trade had long determined that traders fill their ships as tightly as efficiency and safe management allowed, theZongwas more crowded than most slave ships of the period. A typical British slave ship of that size and at that time would only have carried around 193 Africans. Of 223 British slavers which departed...

  10. CHAPTER 4 The making of the Zong
    (pp. 56-75)

    When the William Gregson syndicate bought theZongin 1781, it was just the latest addition to what, by then, was William Gregson’s remarkable slave-trading empire. By the time of his death in 1800, Gregson had become one of Liverpool’s leading citizens and businessmen, a highly successful slave trader who had diversified into insurance and banking, with an associated political career culminating in election as Mayor of Liverpool in 1762. It was a rags-to-riches story, for, like so many of his fellow traders to Africa, William Gregson came from humble origins: his father had been a porter, and his own...

  11. CHAPTER 5 All at sea
    (pp. 76-101)

    Before theZongleft the African coast she had been joined by a man who was to play a critical, though somewhat murky, role in subsequent events on the ship. At some point during the months the ship was anchored there, a Mr Robert Stubbs clambered aboard, joining theZongas the sole voluntary passenger returning to Britain.

    Though it was unusual, it was not unknown for a slave ship to carry passengers. There were, however, patently obvious reasons why passengers would want toavoida slave ship at all costs. Not only was the journey, via the Americas, extremely...

  12. CHAPTER 6 An open secret
    (pp. 102-116)

    Late-eighteenth-century English newspapers carried brief factual statements announcing the departure and arrival of slave ships at various locations around the Atlantic. These small notices from the world of business formed a mundane feature of the social and economic fabric of British life. The arrival of slave ships in the Americas, loaded with Africans, raised no moral issues for publishers or readers, ruffled few political feathers, and attracted little comment save for the simplest of factual notices. On 13 March 1782, for example, almost three months after theZonghad arrived at Black River, a London newspaper reported the bald facts:...

  13. CHAPTER 7 In the eyes of the law
    (pp. 117-137)

    Two men, Granville Sharp and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, were to play key roles in the legal (and social) discussions when theZongcase came to court in 1783. Sharp campaigned against the crew and the owners of the ship both inside and outside the courts, and tried to bring murder charges against the men involved. Lord Mansfield made comments and a decision (taken down by a secretary employed by Sharp) which not only entered legal history, but – more critically, perhaps – soon passed into popular currency and demonology. What we know about the case was determined to an...

  14. CHAPTER 8 A matter of necessity
    (pp. 138-159)

    Even in summer, Westminster Hall can be a cold, draughty place, its huge expanse of ancient flagstones draining the heat from anyone who stops to admire its mediaeval grandeur. But it rarely fails to impress. More perhaps than any other single building, Westminster Hall manages to convey a sense of the English past. Built by the Norman King William Rufus, it has been the location for an endless pageant of major English historical events – coronation banquets, royal entertainments, deceased monarchs lying in state, as well as the major state trials of Guy Fawkes and Charles I among others.


  15. CHAPTER 9 In the wake of the Zong
    (pp. 160-180)

    When theZonghearing in Westminster Hall concluded on 22 May 1783, the people most directly involved returned to the routines of their everyday professional lives. But for those who had been closest to the killings – the Africans whose lives had been spared in the murderous cull fifteen months before – life now consisted of a regime of arduous labour in unknown Jamaican locations. A hearing in an English court made little difference to their lamentable existences.

    To the Gregson syndicate too the case made little difference: it was business as usual. Yes, they had failed to secure compensation...

  16. CHAPTER 10 Abolition and after
    (pp. 181-205)

    The debate about the slave trade, both before and after theZongcase, had been conducted essentially among British people of education and substance – people like Granville Sharp and the men he had badgered for years. They were, by and large, people of sensibility from the small world of British educated elites. There was little hint of a popular dimension to that debate – with one notable and important exception: the presence of a tiny handful of remarkable Africans. Here were people who, though once enslaved, had acquired for themselves those prized individual qualities which brought esteem and respect...

  17. CHAPTER 11 Remembering the Zong
    (pp. 206-215)

    What happened on theZongwas an exceptional story of mass murder, but those killings have come to be seen not merely as a single event (the story of one ship among thousands) but as a representation of the wider story of the slave trade. It is, to repeat, the exception which became the rule – in practice, in the decades before emancipation, as much as in modern memory. In much the same vein, Turner’s paintingThe Slave Shipis an image which similarly addresses the entire history of the slave trade – brilliant artistic shorthand for the whole barbaric...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 216-235)
  19. Further Reading
    (pp. 236-239)
  20. Index
    (pp. 240-248)