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

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

by James Walvin


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The first full review of the mass murder by crew members on the slave ship Zong and the lasting repercussions of this horrifying event

On November 29, 1781, Captain Collingwood of the British ship Zong commanded 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 the Zong, the lawsuit that ensued, how the murder of 132 slaves affected debates about slavery, and the way we remember the infamous Zong today.

Historian James Walvin explores all aspects of the Zong’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 the Zong, 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 the Zong, though unique in the history of slave ships, has come to be understood as typical of life on all such ships.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300253887
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/27/2019
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 898,843
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

James Walvin is professor emeritus, University of York, and a world authority on transatlantic slavery. Among his many previous books are Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire and The Trader, The Owner, The Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery. He lives in York, UK.

Read an Excerpt

The Zong

By James Walvin


Copyright © 2011 James Walvin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18075-6

Chapter One

A painting and a slave ship

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.' 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 the Zong, a Liverpool-registered slave ship, had thrown 132 Africans overboard to their death. The ship was en route from Africa to Black River in Jamaica, had overshot its destination and was running short of water. It was reported that the ship's captain, Luke Collingwood, had ordered the Africans killed, in three batches, in order to reduce the demand for water and to ensure that 'marketable' slaves would survive to landfall in Jamaica.

The atrocity might have passed virtually unnoticed but for one extraordinary fact: the syndicate of Liverpool businessmen who owned the Zong took their insurers to court to secure payment for the loss of the dead Africans. The shipowners were pursuing their claim under well-established protocols of maritime insurance which accepted that enslaved Africans on board the Atlantic ships were insured as cargo. Moreover, under certain circumstances, the loss of those Africans could be claimed on the ship's insurance. In 1783, however, Granville Sharp and his African informant, Gustavus Vassa (better-known today as Olaudah Equiano), saw the story in an utterly different light. To them (and, as the news spread, to an expanding army of outraged British critics) the Zong's owners were demanding money for over a hundred human lives brutally and purposefully cut short.

The resulting legal dispute between the shipowners (Gregson) and the insurers (Gilbert) ensured that the story of the Zong was transformed from a murderous secret among the small handful of sailors who carried out the killings, and their employers in Liverpool, into a highly visible political and legal issue. The consequences of the Zong affair were enormous. The very name – the Zong – quickly entered the demonology of Atlantic slavery, and came to represent the depravity and heartless violence of the entire slave system. The legal and political arguments about the Zong inevitably spawned an abundance of contemporary paperwork: legal documents, press coverage, contemporary commentaries, shipping records, correspondence. But we have no surviving picture of that ship. One painting, however, has, over the years, come to be closely associated with the Zong. Indeed scholars from various disciplines have, mistakenly, accepted that the painting was directly inspired by that tragic ship. Today, if anyone wishes to use a visual representation of the Zong, they are very likely to turn to J.M.W. Turner's masterpiece The Slave Ship, with its haunting portrayal of black bodies drowning beside a ship threatened by a looming storm.

Turner's painting, first exhibited in London in 1840, poses troubling questions about what it depicts, as well as why it was painted. Why kill Africans at sea when the sole aim of the slave trade was to sell them for a profit in the markets of the Americas? Why did Turner decide to paint this picture thirty-three years after the British had abolished the slave trade in 1807, when by all rights it should have been a fading memory? And further, why do scholars and others continue to regard this picture as representative of the slave trade itself, when in fact it portrays, not a profitable commerce in humanity, but its very opposite: the calculated killing of Africans at sea?

For all that, The Slave Ship remains an astonishing artistic achievement, and to scrutinise the painting at close hand is to be confronted by the realities of the Atlantic slave ships. Legions of people must have seen copies of Turner's painting in one form or another, and even in a poor reproduction it remains a remarkable image. But to study the original painting, in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, came as something of a shock. For a start, it is small, measuring only three feet by four feet, and on the day I spent in its company, it was sharing an exhibition wall with another painting. I had fully expected it to have a wall of its own, to offer an uncluttered assertion of Turner's genius, as well as to testify to the appalling importance of its subject matter. I had wanted it to hang alone, if only to confirm its centrality in my own imagination. During the time I had been working this book, I had turned time and again to this particular painting. Like many others I assumed – and was led to believe by what I read – that The Slave Ship was indeed the Zong itself. I even had a postcard of the painting on my desk as I wrote this book. But my mind's eye had always conjured forth a very different image from the reality facing me in Boston. I had expected – hoped – to see an immense painting, primarily (I suspect) because of the enormity of the subject matter. If ever there was a subject that demanded a significant physical presence, this was it. The Slave Ship was not at all what I wanted.

Still, nothing could minimise the painting's impressiveness and impact – notwithstanding its size. I stood before it much longer than I had for any other painting, occasionally moving left and right, closer or further away, all the while negotiating the crowds flowing through the astonishing treasures housed in the gallery. I broke away to visit other exhibits, then returned, later in the day, to look at it again, and to renew acquaintance with what had become a horrible fascination. It is, after all, a painting which tells a terrible story.

Turner's Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying (better known as The Slave Ship) is one of his finest, perhaps even the finest of his paintings. It is a dazzling picture, filled with mesmeric confusions, images and colours. The painting is a mosaic of perplexing issues. At times it is hard to see what Turner is trying to convey, though the picture's basic components seem clear enough. There is a sailing ship in the distance, about to be engulfed by a typhoon. In the foreground, black people are drowning in a turbulent ocean. In one corner there is a confusion of fish, birds, limbs – and chains. The whole seems a clutter of almost surreal confusion, with shackles and chains appearing to defy physical laws, rising above the waves instead of sinking to the ocean bed. And what are those outstretched arms and hands? A final despairing wave from wretches doomed to a terrible fate? The fishes' staring eyes seem to gawp at the viewer, as they home in to feast on a fettered leg, while hungry seagulls flap above the human and watery mayhem, ready to pounce on whatever scraps of flesh the fish might miss.

Dominating everything – almost splitting the painting down the middle – is a dazzling sunset which ignites the entire ghastly scene. It is a vista of oceanic suffering; of dying humanity, unseen except for beseeching hands and one severed leg, soon to be devoured. This is a world of grotesque imagination, so vile in its detail that it almost beggars belief. Yet Turner's portrayal is far from imaginary. Africans had indeed been thrown to their deaths from Atlantic slave ships, most infamously (but, as we shall see, not only) in 1781 from the Liverpool-registered Zong. Turner's painting of 1840 is also a reminder of another, less well-known issue: that the Atlantic slave trade continued despite the Anglo-American abolitions of 1807 and 1808, and that enslaved Africans remained victim to periodic acts of atrocity on those later clandestine foreign vessels.

At the time when Turner was working on The Slave Ship, it had become clear that a number of such killings had recently taken place on Atlantic slave ships (mainly under Spanish and Portuguese flags). Accounts of those killings – all of them harrowing, some scarcely credible in their extreme horror – were widely publicised in parliament, in the press and in abolitionist literature, where they were used as part of the ever more aggressive drive against the continuing Atlantic slave trade.

Despite the barbarity of these incidents, and despite the urgency they brought to the anti-slave-trade arguments in the 1820s and 1830s, they formed only one theme in a British abolition campaign whose prime aim was the ending of slavery in the British colonies. When full emancipation was finally achieved in 1838 (at a staggering cost of £20 million in compensation paid to the slave-owners) it prompted celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic. American abolitionists took great heart from British emancipation: it showed that slavery could be brought down, however severe the obstacles. The Americans thought the time was now ripe for abolitionists worldwide to come together to show their resolve and strength, and they proposed an international anti-slavery convention.

Thus, on 1 June 1840 the first World Anti-Slavery Convention opened in London's Exeter Hall. Appropriately, the opening address was given by Thomas Clarkson, who had been the indefatigable foot soldier of the abolitionist movement since its foundation in 1787. The convention was packed with an extraordinary collection of delegates: 250 from around Britain, and others from as far afield as Canada, the USA, Mauritius, Haiti and Sierra Leone. There was also a sizeable female presence (although an argument ensued about whether women should have full delegate status – it was refused).

The convention met in Exeter Hall, a large new building, capable of providing a public meeting place for thousands of people, and located opposite the current Savoy Hotel on the Strand. Had the 1,840 delegates been so inclined, they could have walked down the Strand, past the building work then taking place to construct Nelson's Column, and on to the Royal Academy in Trafalgar Square. There they would have found the Academy's annual exhibition of paintings.

On Monday, 4 May 1840, precisely one month before the Anti-Slavery Convention began, the Royal Academy had opened its seventy-second annual exhibition to the public. Two days later The Times's review of the exhibition made plain its dislike of item 203: J.M.W. Turner's painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying. It is, said the reviewer,

irksome to find fault with so admirable an artist as Mr. Turner has been, but it is impossible to look at this picture without mingled feelings of pity and contempt. Such a mass of heterogeneous atoms were never brought together to complete a whole before. Amidst a regiment of fish and fowl of all shapes, colours, sizes, and proportions, is seen the leg of a negro, which is about to afford a nibble to a John Dory, a pair of soles and a shoal of whitebait.

Many others disliked the painting – indeed, criticism was general and widespread. Reviewers in a number of the major newspapers and journals ridiculed its subject matter (suggesting that drowning slaves was horrific and unsuitable for depiction in paint) while others denounced its use of colour. The Slave Ship was a picture which provoked extreme and conflicting reactions. The Art Union of 15 May published perhaps the most caustic of comments on the painting: 'Who will not grieve at the talent wasted upon the gross outrage on nature, No. 203'. Even people who liked certain aspects of the picture remained confused by it. Thackeray, for example, 'treated Turner's painting with a mixture of admiration and contempt'. He praised the aesthetics of its colour, but denounced it for its treatment of the drowning slaves. He wrote of the 'huge, slimy, poached eggs in which the hapless niggers plunge and disappear. Ye Gods what a "middle-passage" '.

One man, however, admired it intensely. In the New Year of 1844, John Ruskin was given the painting by his father (who had bought it for 250 guineas). It was, Ruskin believed, Turner's great masterpiece: 'if I were reduced to rest Turner's immortality upon any single work, I would choose this'. Yet even Ruskin was uneasy with this troubling painting, and throughout the twenty-eight years he owned it, he remained perplexed by its content and by its connotations. He never really found a suitable place for it in his home, hanging it in various rooms: in his bedroom, in the hall, and even propping it on his bed before he finally decided that he simply could not live with it. He later explained that he had sold the painting, 'because as I grow old, I grow sad, and cannot endure anything near me, either melancholy or violently pessimistic'. Ruskin finally sold it, and, like a slave ship, the painting crossed the Atlantic to its present home.

When it was first exhibited in Boston in 1875, it was again heavily criticised. Mark Twain, for example, described it in A Tramp Abroad (1880) as 'a manifest impossibility – that is to say, a lie', and as reminding a Boston newspaper reporter of 'a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes'. Twain's derision recurred time and again in his notebooks, and he clearly could not shake the picture from his thoughts. In Europe, whenever he looked at other Turner paintings, The Slave Ship immediately sprang to mind. It was a picture which made Twain feel sick – long after he set eyes on it.

The visceral distaste expressed by Mark Twain and other critics towards The Slave Ship tended to be on aesthetic grounds. But would they have felt such physical revulsion had they pondered the historical realities represented by the painting? In his unique fashion, Turner was confronting an issue which, then as now, cannot be treated or discussed with any degree of comfort. The Slave Ship was, at heart, a memorial: it is claimed by an eminent art critic to be the only 'indisputably great work of Western art ever made to commemorate the Atlantic slave trade'. It effectively commemorates the millions who disappeared into the maws of the Atlantic slave trade. It was – and remains – a deeply troubling, discomforting painting, though nothing like as troubling as the history which lurks behind it.

What prompted Turner to attend to this dark subject matter? Turner scholars accept that he was greatly influenced, throughout much of his work, by the eighteenth-century poetry of James Thomson, more specifically by Thomson's poem 'Summer' (published between 1726 and 1730). That poem includes a description of a slave ship caught up in a typhoon (itself symbolising the destruction of the slave trade), and of a 'direful shark' devouring the limbs of hapless slaves – though Thomson's aquatic agent of justice metes out the same fate to the crew members tossed by the storm into the water:

Lured by the scent Of steaming crowds, of rank disease, and death, Behold! he rushing cuts the briny flood, Swift as the gale can bear the ship along; And from the partners of that cruel trade Which spoils unhappy Guinea of her sons Demands his share of prey – demands themselves. The stormy fates descend: one death involves Tyrants and slaves; when straight, their mangled limbs Crashing at once, he dyes the purple seas With gore, and riots in the vengeful meal.

But there were other, more immediate influences which may have edged Turner towards thinking about slave ships. There was, most obviously, a charged political atmosphere in Britain during the 1820s and 1830s and the campaign against slavery, culminating in emancipation in 1838. Two major books published in 1838–40 – a biography of the great reformer Wilberforce by his sons, and a reprint of Thomas Clarkson's history of abolition – looked back over the fifty-year campaign against the slave trade and slavery. There was, in addition, a mounting concern that the British Abolition Act of 1807 was not totally effective: it had not managed to stop the flow and abuse of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. And in this restless milieu, the most infamous atrocity, committed a full fifty-eight years earlier, was reprised by Thomas Clarkson in his 1839 History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. The Zong continues to cast a long shadow.

Along with many other historians of slavery, I have found it impossible to escape that shadow. The story of the Zong has insinuated itself into much of what I have written about the slave trade, from a book I wrote in 1973 through to one published in 2007. More recently, I have become convinced that the story of the Zong is too central (and too instructive) to be left simply as a marginal story, tangential to other historical narratives. What follows then is an attempt to tackle the Zong directly: to confront many of the complex issues and difficulties it poses and which, so far, I have only skirted. The Zong, as we shall see, was not only a horrific occurrence, but a nascent step in the origins of the campaign to bring the British slave trade to an end. It struck a chord, then as now, finding a niche in popular memory, and maintaining a resonance right down to the present day.


Excerpted from The Zong by James Walvin Copyright © 2011 by James Walvin. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations and Maps....................viii
1 A painting and a slave ship....................1
2 The city built on slavery....................12
3 Crews and captives....................27
4 The making of the Zong....................56
5 All at sea....................76
6 An open secret....................102
7 In the eyes of the law....................117
8 A matter of necessity....................138
9 In the wake of the Zong....................160
10 Abolition and after....................181
11 Remembering the Zong....................206
Further Reading....................236

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