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The Zong Massacre: How 133 Enslaved Africans Became Victims for Insurance Gain


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The tragic events that occurred on the Zong slave ship in November 1781 continue to reverberate through history as a horrific reminder of the inhumane and barbaric nature of the Atlantic slave trade.

The fact that the lives of 133 enslaved Africans were callously extinguished to save the profit margins of the ship’s owners is an atrocity that defies comprehension.

The captain and crew of the Zong, under the ownership of the Gregson family, were willing to sacrifice the lives of the enslaved Africans in their care to claim compensation from their insurers for lost cargo.

This was not an isolated incident but a part of the systematic violence and exploitation that characterized the transatlantic slave trade.

Despite the brutal conditions on board the ship and the horrifying loss of life, the Zong massacre might have remained hidden from history were it not for the ensuing court case.

The legal proceedings that followed the insurance claim brought the events of the Zong to the public’s attention, and the outrage that followed played a significant role in the abolitionist movement.

The case, which was heard before Lord Justice Mansfield and two colleagues, was a pivotal moment in the campaign to end the British slave trade.

It prompted a small group of abolitionists, including Granville Sharp and the Quakers, to take up the cause and bring the horrors of the trade to public consciousness.

Lord Mansfield’s words during the trial, describing the enslaved Africans as being treated no differently from horses, serve as a chilling reminder of the dehumanizing effects of the slave trade.

The lack of regard for human life and the brutal violence inflicted upon the enslaved people was shocking, and the Zong case demonstrated the lengths to which those involved in the trade were willing to go to protect their financial interests.

The legacy of the Zong tragedy is a reminder that the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade were not confined to the ships and plantations but permeated every aspect of society.

It highlights the need for ongoing efforts to confront the legacy of slavery and the racism that continues to afflict our societies today.

We must never forget the atrocities committed on the Zong and other slave ships and work towards a world where such inhumanity is never repeated.

The Zong massacre is a tragic event that highlights the brutality and inhumanity of the transatlantic slave trade.

The slave trade was a system of exploitation that began in the 15th century and lasted until the 19th century.

Millions of Africans were forcibly taken from their homes and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas to work as slaves on plantations.

The slave trade was a highly profitable business, and European countries such as Britain, Portugal, France, Spain, and the Netherlands were heavily involved in it.

What caused the zong massacre?

The story of the Zong massacre began in 1781 when a Liverpool syndicate, led by one of the city’s major traders in enslaved Africans, William Gregson, on a slaving voyage in the area of Cape Coast and Anamabu, bought an impounded ship previously owned by the Dutch and called Zorgue.

During the five months before the ship sailed, more Africans were bought, and some were captured in the area of Cape Coast and Accra (Ghana) and placed on board.

The Zong, like most slave ships, took on too many people for the size of the ship.

The ship, which was built to house about 193 persons, left the western coast of Africa for Black River, Jamaica, on August 18, 1781, with about 440 enslaved Africans, under the captaincy of the inexperienced Luke Collingwood.

The conditions on board the Zong were appalling. The slaves were packed into the ship’s hold, which was only five feet high and less than six feet wide.

The slaves were chained together in pairs, and many could not stand upright or lie down. The ship was overcrowded, and there was a shortage of food and water.

Many of the slaves fell ill, and about 70 enslaved Africans died during the voyage.

Historical evidence indicates that the Zong veered off course near Haiti, losing time, before it got back on course for Jamaica.

By then, complaints of water shortage, illness, and death among the crew, along with poor navigational and leadership decisions, all created a level of confusion aboard.

By November 1781, the Zong had been at sea for over two months.

Also read: Remembering Yekatit 12: Italy’s Deadly Attack on Ethiopians

The ship was running low on water and food, and many of the slaves were sick and dying. The captain, Luke Collingwood, made the decision to throw all the sick and dying slaves overboard.

The reason for this was that he believed that the slaves were not worth saving, and that it would be more profitable to claim the insurance money for their deaths.

The captain Luke Collingwood authorized the throwing of Africans overboard, resulting in the brutal deaths of another 133 people.

The survivors were left to suffer in the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the ship’s hold.

When the Zong eventually arrived in Jamaica, the surviving slaves were sold, and the ship’s owners made a claim to the insurance company for the loss of “property.”

The Zong massacre was not an isolated incident, but rather a reflection of the cruel and inhumane nature of the transatlantic slave trade.

The slave trade resulted in the forced migration of millions of Africans, and the exploitation and dehumanization of an entire race of people.

The Zong massacre serves as a reminder of the horrific consequences of this system of oppression and the need to continue to fight against all forms of slavery and human trafficking.

The Zong massacre was a horrific event that shocked the world and shed light on the inhumane treatment of enslaved Africans during the transatlantic slave trade.

The brutal and callous murder of over 130 people, simply because they were deemed “unprofitable” by the captain of the ship, highlights the dehumanization and cruelty that existed within the slave trade system.

After the Zong reached Jamaica, news of the atrocity spread quickly.

The ship’s owners, including William Gregson, attempted to claim insurance money for the murdered enslaved Africans, but the insurance company refused to pay out.

This led to a legal battle in court, which attracted the attention of abolitionists in Britain.

The initial ruling of the court was that, under certain circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves’ deaths.

The jury also ruled in favor of the slave owners.

However, the controversy surrounding the case and the public outcry it sparked prompted Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, to order a retrial.

Mansfield presided over the retrial and ultimately ruled in favor of the insurers, denying any further claims for insurance payment.

He argued that the captain of the Zong, Luke Collingwood, had not made adequate provisions for the enslaved Africans’ water supply, which contributed to their deaths.

Following the case, Granville Sharp, a prominent abolitionist, attempted to bring criminal charges against the captain, crew, and owners of the Zong for the murder of enslaved Africans. However, his efforts were unsuccessful.

The Zong massacre serves as a grim reminder of the atrocities committed during the transatlantic slave trade and the disregard for human life that was so prevalent at the time.

The case also played a significant role in the abolitionist movement and helped to raise awareness of the horrific conditions endured by enslaved Africans during their journey across the Atlantic.


The Zong massacre, in which enslaved Africans were thrown overboard to their deaths, was a horrific example of the atrocities committed during the international trade in African humanity.

While the English were responsible for the Zong massacre, mass killings of Africans on slave ships were commonplace throughout Europe’s major colonial powers and the traders in the Americas.

The fact that the people responsible for the Zong massacre were never brought to justice only highlights the extent to which Africans were treated as mere cargo.

Enslaved Africans were considered to be items of trade, no different from any other commodity being transported across the Atlantic.

The Dutch referred to them as “stock,” while the French called them “moveable stock.”

Even Portuguese insurance law classified slaves alongside beasts of the field.

This dehumanizing treatment of enslaved Africans facilitated the inhumane treatment they received on slave ships, where they were often packed in tight quarters and subjected to terrible conditions.

Despite the horrors of the slave trade, the Zong massacre and the subsequent legal battle brought increased attention to abolitionists such as Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano, as well as new converts such as Thomas Clarkson and Reverend John Ramsay.

Their efforts paved the way for the eventual abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833, led by William Wilberforce.

The legacy of the Zong massacre serves as a grim reminder of the cruelty and inhumanity of the slave trade.

While the transatlantic slave trade may have officially ended in the 19th century, its impact can still be felt today, with the long-lasting effects of slavery and systemic racism still prevalent in many societies.

It is important to remember and learn from these dark moments in history in order to build a better future for all.


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