On August 1781, a British slave ship, S.S. Zong (110 tons Square Stern Ship: Registered at Liverpool, UK; Ship’s Hull and Cargo Insured by Lloyds of London) left Ghana with 442 slaves (cargo) aboard – twice the number it was designed to carry – bound for Jamaica. When it reached the Black river in Jamaica on
December 22, 1781; only 208 slaves remained to be sold. The rest of the 132 captive slaves were brutally murdered by the crew of the ship.
The marine insurance industry was not stranger to fraudulent claims at that time. When an insured shipowner decides deliberately and unlawfully to wreck his own vessel or his cargo, one can be sure that the money and stakes involved are pretty high. The added benefit however, is that if all goes according to the plan, all the physical evidence can be easily buried off in the depths of the ocean floor.
It would be wrong to assume that, in many cases, the presumed reason for an owner to take such a drastic step is to simply scoop out an insurance pay out from their hull and machinery underwriters. Many a times, it also has been to take advantage of the loopholes in an existing law or act.
The Zong was an unlucky ship on an unlucky voyage. It had an inexperienced captain – Luke Collingwood, a surgeon by trade who had never commanded a slave vessel. It also had a small and quarrelsome crew, who were at loggerheads with each other by the time that the Zong had reached the Caribbean after an
unusually long Atlantic crossing. First, after leaving St. Kitts in mid-November 1781 the crew discovered that their water barrels were leaking, meaning that water supplies became short by the time that the ship neared Jamaica (though no sailor or captive was put on short allowance). Second, someone made the
disastrous decision of mistaking the western end of Jamaica for Cape Tiburon in astern Saint-Domingue. This navigational error meant that by 29 November 1781 the Zong was hopelessly off-course, becalmed somewhere off the south-west of Jamaica, far away from its intended landing point of Kingston.
Adrift, with water running low and fearing slave insurrection the crew consulted and decided to force overboard African captives to preserve water for survivors. They killed the Africans in three batches – 54 were killed on 29 November; 42 were murdered on 1 December, and sometime in early December (and after rain had fallen, making the problem of dwindling water supplies less acute) a further 26 were thrown overboard. On the final occasion, ten slaves leapt into the sea, committing suicide rather than being murdered. The Zong finally arrived in Black River, southwest Jamaica, on 22 December 1781, where it sold its remaining 208 slaves. The ship (renamed the Richard) returned to England on 26 October 1782 and the owners, the Gregson syndicate, claimed the losses of the murdered slaves at £30 per head, under an insurance contract that covered the death of slaves aboard slavers due to “the perils of the sea” and which was based upon the average cost of the surviving 208 Africans sold into slavery at Black River in January 1782.
Upon the Zong’s arrival in Jamaica, James Gregson, the ship’s owner, filed an insurance claim for their loss. Gregson argued that the Zong did not have enough water to sustain both crew and the human commodities. The insurance underwriter, Thomas Gilbert, disputed the claim citing that the Zong had 420 gallons of water aboard when she was inventoried in Jamaica. Despite this the Jamaican court in 1782 found in favour of the owners. The insurers appealed the case in 1783 and in the process provoked a great deal of public interest and the attention of Great Britain’s abolitionists. The leading abolitionist at the time, Granville Sharp, used the deaths of the slaves to increase public awareness about the slave trade and further the anti-slavery cause. It was he who first used the word massacre.
A jury heard the dispute, Gregson v/s Gilbert, at London’s Guildhall in March 1783, and ruled in favour of the ship owners. The insurers appealed, as solicitor Andrew Bicknell notes, not on the basis of common humanity, but because it occurred as a result of errors of navigation and mismanagement of the vessel, namely insufficient water onboard.
The case came before the lord chief justice, Lord Mansfield, who in a previous judgment had ruled that there was never a legal basis for slave ownership within England under English law. He decided there should be a retrial because of new evidence which suggested that the captain and crew had been at fault.
“It appears that no trial ever took place, so the owners didn’t receive their insurance payment, but perhaps a chance was lost by the court to put down a moral marker in relation to such a case,” said Bicknell.
While the facts of the Zong case were unusual, he said there would have been many claims under policies of cargo insurance for the loss of slaves during their transportation.
“It was standard practice for slavers to insure their cargo of slaves and had the Zong simply sunk in a storm with a similar loss of life, no such notoriety would have been attached to the case. Almost certainly, the insurance claim for the value of the lost slaves would have been paid,” he says. The only restriction was that deaths had to arise from “perils of the seas” and would not for example cover deaths through disease or insurrection.
The crux of the plaintiffs’ case was that the crew was under the “necessity” of throwing slaves overboard because they faced an imminent insurrection from water-deprived captives realizing they were facing a slow and painful death. There was no insurrection on the Zong. But the crew were convinced that if they had not acted on 29 November an insurrection would have occurred. Killing 54 women and children by jettisoning them as cargo saved the crew and the rest of the slaves on ship from imminent destruction. Both James Kelsall and Robert Stubbs, the only eye-witness testimony that exists concerning the decision making process on the night of 29 November, were insistent on this point. Stubbs supported Collingwood’s decision to murder Africans because “according to his Judgement the Captain did what was right. “There was an absolute necessity for throwing over the Negroes.” Kelsall claimed and added that he objected at first but soon came around.
Mansfield and Buller, the presiding judges in 1783, did not make much of the question of insurrection on board the Zong. In retrospect, it is surprising that they did not interrogate counsel further on this matter.
Of cases dealing with slave insurrection that came before the British courts in the late eighteenth century, it was only in Gregson v. Gilbert that the insurrection under discussion was imaginary, not real. But it was made clear in court in 1783 that the Zong suffered no insurrection. Solicitor General John Lee, acting for the Gregsons, argued that by throwing the slaves overboard the crew avoided the greater evil, for otherwise “in a few hours there must have been such an Insurrection all the blacks wou’d have killed all the Whites.” Counsel for the defendants, Mr. Davenport demurred. Lee replied by quoting testimony from Stubbs. Davenport continued, however, insisting that there had been no insurrection. Lee agreed, noting that he did not say that there was an insurrection, merely that there might have been one if preventive action had not been taken.
Was an insurrection likely? The jury at the jury trial on March 5, 1783 thought so. They awarded the Gregson syndicate £3,660 for the loss of 122 Africans insured at £30 each. Insurrections were a constant threat in the Atlantic slave trade. Studies show that up to ten percent of all transatlantic slaving voyages were affected by revolt, leading to the death of perhaps 1 percent of all captives entering the trade and adding significantly to the costs of doing business. The costs of containing coercion were high and were perhaps highest in the second half of the eighteenth century when the frequency of slave revolts increased and when the violence on both sides was most pronounced. The crew on slave ships were terrified about the possibility of shipboard revolt and did as much as they could to try and prevent it, including exercising fierce control over African men, the most likely protagonists in any uprising. Men were kept fettered and chained almost continuously and were separated from women and children and kept in heavily patrolled apartments, usually immediately below the main deck and as far away from the weapons’ room as possible. A large wooden grating covered the entrance to their quarters, designed to prevent men captives from getting out in anything other than single file.
Nevertheless, if the Zong really was at risk of insurrection the actions that Collingwood and his crew took after 28 November did not protect the ship from shipboard revolt. Indeed, their actions placed the ship and the crew in great danger. The crew had a variety of options open to them. The most obvious option was to shut down the holds and let the Africans take their chances of surviving without water and meat while making haste as fast as they could to the safety of port in Jamaica. Africans starved on ships all the time and a “sickly ship” was not uncommon. The major problem with this option was that taking it would negate all future claims for insurance. It was well-established that deaths of slaves at sea from a disease that could have been contracted at land, or death from “despair” or suicide were not covered in insurance claims. It would also virtually ensure a bad market for selling slaves. The last ten days of a voyage were generally taken up with preparing captives for sale – taking constraints off wrists and ankles so that sores could heal, careful cleaning, using a lunar caustic to hide sores, covering up grey hair and rubbing down bodies with palm oil so that captives glistened and gave off a healthy glow. Such preparations would be impossible in a ship where famished slaves were locked below decks.
There was an option outlined by Kelsall in his interrogatory before the Exchequer. The ship could wait until the water had diminished further and hope either for rain or for a passing ship to relieve their plight. The climatic conditions pertaining in early December have not usually been considered important by historians in evaluating the case of the Zong but they were important in the trial at King’s Bench in March 1781. It does not appear that the question of rain had come up in the original jury trial at the Guildhall on 5 March, a trial over which Mansfield had also presided. But when Sergeant Heywood, on behalf of the insurers, after the cause was over and the verdict brought in, declared that Stubbs in his written testimony had said that rain had fallen for several days while the Zong was at sea, and after the first murders had been committed, Mansfield became agitated. The slaves were thrown overboard, even after rain had fallen for several days. Mansfield knew very well that if slaves had been killed after rain had fallen then the whole nature of the case changed. It was what led him to suggest that there be a new trial. Indeed, if rain had fallen, then Gregson v. Gilbert was no longer an insurance trial but could be a murder trial.
The murder of 132 African captives on the Zong in November 1781 and its subsequent publicity as an insurance case, which showed the inhumanity of the slave trade in graphic detail was a cause célèbre in the history of eighteenth-century abolitionism. What is often forgotten is that this event occurred in the seas south-west of Jamaica at a period when Jamaica was at its lowest ebb, during the American Revolution.
The reverberations from the Zong case also had a major effect on the plantation economy of Jamaica, an island that went, in half a century, from being the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown to an especially disgraceful part of Britain’s empire in the aftermath of the Morant Bay killings in 1865. No Jamaican was called to give witness in the case of the Zong. Jamaica, however, was crucial in the case. We cannot understand the decisions that were made in late November and December on board the Zong without placing it in the context of a Jamaican commercial and political world facing severe disruption because of the turmoil of the American Revolution and accompanying natural disasters. Because this was an unusual time, it led to unusual slaving voyages. What was most unusual about the Zong was not that slavers threw Africans overboard to claim on insurance. That crime happened with regularity. It was an unusual voyage because of the way that the ship was acquired as a prize and unusual because the crew on the ship needed to be particularly attuned to some very specific commercial and political rhythms in Jamaica in 1781. Unusual cases seldom make for lasting legal precedents. In this case, however, it led to a lasting change in the relationship between Britain’s leading slave colony and the imperial state.
It wasn’t until 50 years later that the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 abolished slavery in most British colonies, and the League of Nations 1926 Slavery Convention sought global prohibition of slavery and the slave trade.
One of the biggest firms of the insurance market Lloyd’s of London became one of the first British firms to issue a formal apology for its involvement with slavery, offering to make reparations in the form of financial support to organizations working to promote more economic opportunities for black people and other communities of color.
Insurance was vital in facilitating the transatlantic slave trade. The majority of ships plying the infamous Middle Passage between Africa and the Caribbean in the late 18th century, when British involvement in slave trading was reaching its height, carried insurance, according to historians Robin Pearson and David Richardson of the University of Hull, who coauthored an analysis of the insurance policies some of these voyages carried.
In 1794, the Slave Trade Act was amended to limit the way insurers could underwrite slave voyages, making the “perils of the sea” and other general phrases illegal. Finally, in 1807, Parliament made it illegal for any British ship to carry slaves and for British insurers to underwrite slaving voyages.
The slave trade might have receded, but insurance frauds have taken place in many different ways, and are still there are many cases pending to be voiced out.
Given the fluctuations in shipping markets, particularly the dry bulk sector which now seems to be steadily improving, one would expect incidents of scuttling and insurance fraud to have been on the increase in recent years.