It’s November 29th, 1781, on board a British slave ship called the Zong as it journeys across the Atlantic Ocean from West Africa to the West Indies.
In the pitch-dark bowels of the ship, a young enslaved African opens his mouth to breathe. But the cramped space is almost airless. The young man’s parched throat is so sore he can barely make a sound.
His wrists and ankles burn from the shackles. He feels desperately sick, both from starvation and from a terrible disease that’s spreading throughout the vessel.
Just when he thinks his misery can't get any worse, members of the ship’s crew burst into the room, holding lanterns and whips.
One of them marches over to the sickly young man, who’s chained to a group of other fellow slaves.
The crewman inspects him for a moment. Then he unfastens the chain and pulls the young man and the others to their feet.
The crewman leads them out of the cramped slave quarters… and onto deck.
The sickly young man blinks as he steps into the bright sunlight. As he looks around, he notices the sea is remarkably still; there’s hardly a breeze. The cool, open air is a welcome change of pace. But the moment of rest bit doesn’t last long.
The crewman marches the young man and his fellow slaves to the edge of the ship. And then - without a word - he pushes them overboard left to struggle and then be swallowed by the deep still sea.
The crew of the Zong should have arrived at the British colony of Jamaica long ago. But their voyage stalled. For weeks, the Zong was stuck in a stretch of ocean known for its lack of wind currents. The ship was too heavy, and the winds too weak to propel it forward. The crew didn’t have enough food or water to keep everyone on board alive for much longer, and many of the slaves below deck had fallen ill from a contagious disease.
So over the course of two days, 142 enslaved persons are forced into the ocean, many of them women and children. But news of the Zong Massacre, as it comes to be known, and a high profile trial brought by the shipping company seeking payment of an insurance policy on the lost slaves, provokes outrage at home in Britain, helping the abolitionist cause there win its most significant battle when the British Parliament abolishes the slave trade in the West Indies on March 25th, 1807.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 25th, 1807. The Abolition of the British Slave Trade.
Act One: Olaudah Equiano
It’s March 19th, 1783 in Fulham, West London, 24 years before the British abolition of slavery in the West Indies.
In this well-to-do area of the city, a horse-drawn carriage pulls up outside a residential home. Stepping out from the cab is a 38-year-old black man in bright-buckled shoes, a finely tailored coat, and a fashionable gentlemen’s wig.
As the elegant-looking man pays for his ride, he notices the cab driver regarding him with unconcealed curiosity. Black people are not an uncommon sight in eighteenth-century London. They often work as low-paid, domestic servants or scrape by as vagrants. But the elegant gentleman can tell from the look on the coachman’s face that he doesn’t often see an affluent person of color.
As the gentleman walks up a shingled path toward the large house, he wonders how he should introduce himself to those inside. For almost two decades he has gone by the name Gustavus Vassa. Using that name, he’s earned renown as an advocate for the abolition of slavery. But that name isn’t really his. It was given to him by a former owner who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. But now, Gustavus is a freedman and he longs to be called by the African name he was given at birth. So when a butler finally opens the door to him, the visitor smiles and proudly introduces himself - Olaudah Equiano.
Equiano has traveled here to the home of a Scottish lawyer named Granville Sharp, one of the most prominent anti-slave-trade activists in Britain. Sharp has garnered well-deserved fame for his tireless work against social injustice. Equiano was especially impressed when he read of Sharp’s success defending a young African slave named Jonathan Strong years earlier.
Strong had been viciously beaten by his master with a butt of a pistol and then left for dead in the street. Sharp found him and helped him recover from his brutal injuries. But as soon as Strong was fit again, he was kidnapped by his attacker and sold for a profit.
Outraged, Granville Sharp took the offending slave owner to trial. He managed not only to secure freedom for Strong but also used the widespread publicity of the case to swell public sympathy for the abolitionist cause. Now, as he is led through the house, Equiano hopes he can spur Sharp into a similar action again.
In the drawing-room, Equiano and Sharp shake hands warmly. Although they’ve never met in person, they have corresponded in writing and there’s a deep mutual respect between them. Sharp invites Equiano to sit. Over a cup of tea, Sharp asks Equiano if he would tell the story of how he achieved his freedom.
Equiano obliges. He recounts his earliest memories in a village in the Eboe province of Africa, what is now southern Nigeria. His childhood was a happy one, until the age of 11 when he was kidnapped by local raiders. He was then transported to the Atlantic coast where he was sold into slavery. Then he was immediately shipped across the ocean toward the West Indies with hundreds of other enslaved Africans. He was lucky to have even survived the journey - notorious trade route often referred to as “the Middle Passage.”
From Barbados, he was sold from master to master. By 1765, he was in Montserrat in the Caribbean Islands enslaved to an American Quaker named Robert King.
As well as teaching him to properly read and write, King also promised that Equiano could buy his own freedom for the price of 40 pounds, the equivalent of around 7000 dollars today.
King didn’t believe his slave would be able to achieve such a sum. But soon, Equiano proved him wrong. He immediately began trading in goods such as exotic fruits, glassware, and other desirable items with sailors in the Montserrat ports. Equiano possessed both entrepreneurial acumen and incredible resolve. And in a short time, he had purchased his freedom. Since then, he settled in London where he gained modest fame as a campaigner for abolition.
Granville Sharp listens with interest to the many stories from Equiano’s eventful life. But when he’s finished, Equiano explains that this is not why he requested an audience. Instead, he asks Sharp if he’s ever heard of the Zongmassacre. Sharp admits that he has not. So Equiano tells him of the horrific conditions endured by those on that disastrous voyage, and of the wicked decision made by the crew to throw scores of human souls overboard.
Both men are outraged not by the atrocity alone but that it remained a secret for some time. The details only filtered out into public consciousness after the insurance company refused to pay a claim and were taken to court by the Liverpool-based slaving company.
When it’s time for Equiano to leave, Granville Sharp clasps his new friend by the hands. He assures him that he will use all his influence to prosecute the crew of the Zongto the fullest extent of the law.
But Sharp’s efforts will meet with fierce resistance from the powerful, profit-driven slave industry. It will be many years before the British empire abolishes slavery altogether. But through tireless effort, abolitionists like Olaudah Equinano and Granville Sharp will ultimately convince Britain the slave trade is evil and must be abolished.
Act Two: Sons of Africa
It’s March 21st, 1783 at the Court of King’s Bench in Westminster Hall, London. 24 years before Britain abolishes slavery.
Granville Sharp sits in the gallery watching a hearing into what occurred aboard the slave ship Zong.He is furious that this is not a criminal trial on a charge of mass murder. But instead, it’s yet another investigation into whether the slave traders are entitled to an insurance payout. Sharp is stunned when he hears the Solicitor, appearing on behalf of the Zong’sowners, begins to speak, saying “what is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? …. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honorable men of murder.”
Anger courses through Granville Sharp at this callous attitude toward human life. Sadly, it’s one shared by much of British society. Sharp does not care if the insurance company pays or not. Before the verdict has been returned, he storms out of the courtroom, determined to see the owners of the Zongbrought to justice.
But despite the righteous efforts of campaigners like Sharp and Equiano, no criminal charges will ever be brought against anyone involved in the Zongmassacre. But their activism does make a difference.
They write passionate letters about the Zongto newspapers, Members of Parliament, Christian groups, and other organizations who they hope will be sympathetic to their cause. In this way, the abolitionists are able to use the horror of the massacre to expose the wider injustice of the transatlantic slave trade.
In the years to come, a number of influential social justice groups will form, such as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Many of these organizations include influential figures from Britain’s political, cultural, and religious spheres. And increasingly, the British government feels pressure from all sides to put an end to slavery.
By 1786, five years after the Zong massacre, Olaudah Equiano has risen in prominence as an outspoken advocate for abolition. He’s even helped form Britain’s first black political organization. “The Sons of Africa” comprises 12 educated black Britons, most of whom were formerly enslaved. Equiano and his associates hold public meetings to lecture and preach about the evils of slavery. Often these meetings are attended by some of the most powerful people in the land, the Prince of Wales or the visionary poet and artist William Blake. The audience listens to the Sons of Africa share their individual stories of suffering. Some speakers even unbutton their shirts to display the cruel brands of ownership placed there by whips and hot irons.
One of the Sons of Africa is a man named John Stuart, originally named Ottobah Cugoano. Cugoano now works as a respected servant to some wealthy London artists. But in his youth, he was a slave in the British-owned Caribean island of Lesser Antibes.
In a series of public speeches, Cugoano tells of how he worked on a sugar plantation and witnessed barbaric acts against the slaves. He describes to his listeners how the slave owners would starve their so-called human property. As a result, many slaves were forced to steal sugar cane in order to survive. Cugoano relates how he witnessed slave drivers pulling out the teeth of those who had been caught stealing. He sees his audience wince in painful distress at his vivid account. But he knows that the wealthy and comfortable people of Britain need to hear what horrors are being committed in far-off places, in the name of profit.
The Sons of Africa do sterling work in bringing the abolitionist cause to public attention. But it is Olaudah Equiano who makes the biggest impact. With the support and encouragement of his friend Granville Sharp, Equiano publishes his autobiography in 1789. It’s entitled `The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’
The book is an action-packed account of the author’s life spent largely at sea. But it is also an angry condemnation of slavery. Among other hardships, Equiano describes his childhood kidnapping and subsequent voyage across the Middle Passage.
His account of the mistreatment he suffered inside the belly of a British slave ship is a sobering read, especially given the knowledge that such atrocities were inflicted on tens of millions of Africans throughout the century.
Equiano travels widely throughout Britain promoting his memoir, one of the earliest books to be published by a black African writer. Soon, Equiano’s slave narrative becomes a massive bestseller, making him a wealthy man. And in 1792, he marries an Englishwoman named Susannah Cullen in a church in the county of Cambridgeshire. They have two daughters together. And throughout the rest of his life, he uses his fame and fortune to fight against slavery and injustice.
But Equiano does not live long enough to see Britain abolish the slave trade. At the age of 52, he dies of natural causes and is buried in London. But his eloquent witness has already landed a tremendous blow against the inhumane practice of slavery. Over the next ten years, a new generation will carry on the work of abolitionists, such as Equiano and Sharp. A young politician and philanthropist named William Wilberforce will continue the crusade against slavery in Britain, and this time, he will see it through.
Act Three: Wilberforce
It’s February 23rd, 1807 in the Palace of Westminster, London. One month before the Slave Trade Act is given Royal Assent.
William Wilberforce stands in the House of Commons, addressing almost 300 other Members of Parliament. He is nearing the end of an impassioned speech that he’s been wanting to make for decades. Every time Wilberforce makes a point, the vast majority of the politicians in the room cheer boisterously and tap their canes on the floor in support. When he finally finishes speaking, he is exhausted from the hours-long debate. But the enthusiastic applause he receives tells him victory is at hand. And before long, Parliament will vote for the proposed law: the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act.
Now 48, Wilberforce has been leading the campaign against the Slave Trade for twenty years. Informed by his Christian faith and inspired by the writings of the anti-slavery activists who came before him, Wilberforce has attempted to get the House to vote on this issue many times. But he’s been met with extraordinary resistance, especially from the business community.
Over the past three centuries, the slave trade has made fortunes for merchants, bankers, shipbuilders, and insurers, not to mention the British treasury itself. Wilberforce knows the slave trade represents 80% of Great Britain’s foreign income. But despite this, activists like him have been working hard to sway public opinion for years. And gradually, the British electorate began to demand change. By 1807, any politician who wishes to win an election must be a vocal abolitionist. Thanks to this shift in public opinion, Wilberforce is finally optimistic that victory is at hand.
As the debate ends, each member of Parliament is asked to vote for or against the Bill to prohibit the slave trade. Wilberforce and his supporters have asked them to vote their consciences. And when the results come in, the victory is resounding. The House erupts in cheers as tears stream down Wilberforce's cheeks.
One month later, on March 25th, 1807, King George III gives his Royal Assent to the Bill, making it official. But slavery itself is not yet outlawed; only the slave trade. It will take another 24 years of tireless activism before Britain completely abolishes the horrific institution. Still, the first major blow in the fight against slavery was struck in Great Britain on this day, March 25th, 1807.
Next on History Daily: March 28th, 1881. P.T. Barnum and James Bailey merge their operations to form Barnum and Bailey's circus - "The Greatest Show on Earth."
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by James Benmore.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.