Nov. 29, 2022

The Zong Massacre

The Zong Massacre

November 29, 1781. The crew of a British slave ship murders 54 Africans by dumping them into the sea to claim insurance, beginning the Zong massacre.


Cold Open

It’s August 1781 in present-day Ghana, West Africa. 

A long column of chained prisoners trudges along a mud track.

A few days ago, slave traders kidnapped these people from their villages in the mountains. Now they’re on their way to the ports on the coast to be loaded into ships and transported to British colonies in the Americas, where a life of bondage awaits them.

A young woman walks with her head bowed and her wrists shackled. The manacles around her ankles press painfully into her flesh as she tramps through the dirt, her gaze fixed on the shuffling feet in front of her. After several hours of walking… the young woman lays eyes on the sparkling blue ocean on the horizon. Palm trees sway in the breeze, and European slave ships jostle in the bustling harbor. A white-washed castle overlooks the waterfront - a domineering fortress surrounded by cannons and tall watchtowers. The young woman notices the guards patrolling the battlements: odd-looking foreigners with pale skin and sandy-colored hair, speaking in an unknown tongue.

As the strange men open the castle’s iron gates, the kidnapped villagers are led inside the compound… and thrown inside a dank, pitch-black dungeon. The young woman and her fellow prisoners are forced to wait in the gloom until, finally… the row of locked wooden doors along the cell wall creak open. But instead of being led into the daylight, the prisoners are forced into the forbidding darkness of a ship’s hold. The young woman is struck by the overpowering stench of brine and human excrement. Several large rats scurry out from the belly of the ship.

One of the European slave traders appears and begins shepherding the kidnapped Africans inside the vessel. The young woman staggers forward, trembling with fear and bewilderment. She knows it will take all her courage and resilience to survive this journey - and whatever nightmare awaits her at the end of it.

On August 18th, 1781, more than 400 Africans are loaded onto a British slave ship called the Zong. The Zong is only built to carry about 200 people below deck. But the greed of the slave traders blinds them to the dangers of overcrowding; all they care about is the money they can make at the slave markets in Jamaica. But the journey there will be more troublesome than expected. Navigational errors will prolong the voyage. And eventually, the Zong’s captain will realize he doesn’t have enough drinking water to keep his human cargo alive, this leads him to a decision that will come to exemplify the inhumane brutality of the Atlantic slave trade, when fifty-four enslaved Africans are thrown overboard on November 29th, 1781.


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 November 29th, 1781: The Zong Massacre.

Act One: Overboard

It’s November 18th, 1781, somewhere in the Caribbean Sea; three months after the Zong slave ship set sail from Africa.

Robert Stubbs struts arrogantly along the port side of the ship, making his routine checks. Robert is only the deputy officer aboard this ship. But the captain, Luke Collingwood, recently came down with a violent fever, leaving Robert in command.

Robert clambers up to the foredeck and peers out over the prow. The grizzled sailor hums to himself as his dark eyes flicker across the jagged waves. Gradually, the hazy outline of an island materializes on the horizon.

Robert consults his maps and compass and determines that the landmass is the island of Hispaniola, a French colony about 400 miles east of Jamaica. Robert nods, satisfied, and adjusts the Zong’s course for the western horizon. With decent headwinds and brisk ocean currents, they should make landfall in Jamaica within ten days. Robert pictures the slave markets of Kingston and grins in anticipation of the small fortune he’s bound to make there.

But ten days soon pass and there’s no sign of Jamaica. Robert begins to suspect he’s made a navigational error. On the morning of November 29th, Robert and his crew awake to clear skies and unbroken ocean as far as the eye can see. Robert is now convinced that something has gone wrong. After consulting the maps again, he realizes the nature of his mistake. The island he’d identified as Hispaniola was in fact Jamaica. They have inadvertently sailed 400 miles in the wrong direction.

Robert closes his eyes and hangs his head. He knows they only had enough provisions to get them to Jamaica. But now, they're facing ten more days at sea beneath the hot Caribbean sun. They have barely enough drinking water to keep the crew alive - let alone the 400 enslaved Africans below deck. 60 of them have already died from disease during the crossing, and each one of their deaths is a financial blow to the wealthy British stakeholders who financed this voyage. If more Africans die, then the crew of the Zong stands to lose their income and reputation.

So, Robert calls an emergency meeting with James Kelsall, the first mate, as well as several other senior crewmen. The mood in the cabin is subdued as Robert shares his concerns with the other men, explaining that there isn’t enough water to keep them and the Africans alive. One of the apprentice officers suggests letting the Africans die and then claiming the insurance. Murmurs of approval ripple through the room.

But another officer shakes his head.

He explains that the insurance payout cannot be claimed if the Africans die of natural causes. The only way the claim would payout is by throwing some of their human cargo overboard. Under a maritime custom known as “the law of general average,” a ship captain can jettison some of his cargo to save the remainder of that cargo, before claiming the insurance on goods thrown overboard.

A silence falls over the cabin. Large waves crash against the portholes and the ship creaks as it lurches over the heavy swell. James Kelsall, the first mate, speaks up first. He reminds the crew that they’re talking about people here, not material goods; throwing Africans overboard would be murder.

But Robert shoots James a dirty look and says: “They aren’t people. They’re property.” And the rest of the crew voice their agreement. James realizes it’s not worth putting up a fight. And besides, deep down, he agrees with them. So when it's put to a vote, the verdict is unanimous. They all agree their only option is to throw a portion of their cargo overboard.

Later that afternoon, a group of crewmen head down to the hold, where the Africans are being kept in filthy and cramped conditions. The crewmen begin selecting people to be thrown overboard - starting with women and children because they fetch less at market.

When they’ve rounded up fifty-four Africans, they march the prisoners to the loading ports on the side of the ship’s hull. Two midshipmen open the hatches, revealing the choppy waters of the Caribbean Sea some twenty feet below. The sailors then draw their swords and push the terrified women and children into the roiling waves.

But this act of brutality will prove the start and not the end of a crime that will come to be known as the Zong Massacre. Over the course of the next few days, more Africans will be thrown overboard, until 132 enslaved people have been cast into the sea to drown.

The crew will later claim that they discarded a portion of their cargo out of necessity, as they were running perilously low on drinking water. But when word of the loss of 132 human lives reaches Britain, the insurance firm liable for the damages will refuse to payout and instead, they will confront the Zong’s crew in court, arguing that the abandonment of the enslaved Africans was not a necessity but instead cold-blooded murder.

Act Two: Trial in London

It’s March 19th, 1783, on a bright spring morning in London; two years after the Zong massacre.

Olaudah Equiano strolls along the banks of the River Thames dressed in a velvet frock coat and necktie. As Olaudah walks along the water, he looks at its murky depths and thinks about the unfortunate souls thrown off the Zong and into the Caribbean - a fate that could have once been his own.

Originally from West Africa, Olaudah was sold into slavery as a child, but later gained his freedom. Now a writer and abolitionist in London, Olaudah has been avidly following the court battle surrounding the Zong massacre.

After the crew of British slave traders threw 132 enslaved Africans overboard, they tried to claim the insurance money. The crew insisted that due to water shortages on board, they had to jettison a portion of their human cargo in order to save the lives of their other slaves.

But the insurance firm liable for the damages refused to accept the crew’s story. They believe instead that the crew of the Zong murdered the slaves, then made up the story about the water shortages in order to make the insurance claim. So, the ship’s owners - a syndicate of wealthy English merchants - decided to take the insurance firm to court. And a few days ago, the jury ruled in favor of the Zong’s crew and awarded damages to the ship’s owners.

When Olaudah caught wind of the story, he was disgusted but not surprised. Having experienced the cruelty of slave traders firsthand, he knows that the allegations brought against the crew are entirely plausible. And he refuses to let Britain gloss over the tragedy.

Olaudah wants to raise awareness about what he believes is a gross miscarriage of justice. He hopes it will highlight the shocking brutality of the Atlantic slave trade, and perhaps even become a catalyst for its abolition. So, today, he is on his way to meet with Granville Sharp, a prominent campaigner for the abolition of the slave trade. Olaudah wants to inform Granville of the Zong massacre and discuss what ought to be done.

When Olaudah arrives at Granville’s townhouse, a servant opens the door and leads him through to the study, where the middle-aged Englishman is waiting for him. Quickly, Olaudah tells Granville about the horrific incident aboard the Zong and the subsequent trial in London. By the time Olaudah finishes, Granville resolves there and then to bring nationwide attention to this case.

The Englishman wishes he could prosecute the ship’s crew for murder. But he’s just a private citizen and doesn’t have the resources to bring a personal lawsuit against the slave traders. So, Granville decides to write a letter to the Board of the Admiralty - the government body responsible for national shipping affairs. In his letter, Granville accuses the Zong’s crew of murdering 132 enslaved Africans and covering up their deaths as part of an insurance scam. He urges the Board of the Admiralty to press charges.

But as it happens, the case will return to court sooner than Granville expected. While he awaits a response from the Board of Admiralty, the insurance company who was forced to pay damages during the initial hearing demands a re-trial. And on May 21st, Granville heads to Westminster Hall in central London to watch the proceedings.

Granville sits in the audience among a throng of stiff-backed men in powdered wigs. Hushed voices fill the lofty chamber as the judge takes his seat. The plaintiffs from the insurance firm sit on one side of the room, quietly consulting with their attorney. Across from them, Granville stares at the defense lawyer, Mr. John Lee - a man Granville has had the displeasure of meeting several times before, and who's a relentless advocate on the behalf of slave traders.

The lawyer for the prosecution speaks first. He tells the courtroom that new information has recently come to light. According to the testimony of the ship’s first mate - James Kelsall - there was actually heavy rainfall on the second day of the massacre. The lawyer argues that the rain would have allowed the crew to collect plenty of drinking water, and any slaves thrown overboard were therefore killed needlessly. The lawyer advises the judge not to be fooled by the slave traders’ attempt to disguise a villainous insurance scam as an act of maritime necessity.

As the prosecuting lawyer returns to his bench, defense attorney John Lee takes to the stand. The round-cheeked lawyer surveys the courtroom calmly, a thin smile playing on his lips. He says, “Your honor, the captain of the ship acted in accordance with maritime law. The negroes had to be thrown overboard in order to save the rest of the cargo.” But the prosecution interrupts, reminding the judge that these are innocent human lives they’re talking about and not cargo but John Lee waves the protest away. Still smiling, he says: “Please, your honor, let our judgment not be clouded by womanly emotion. These slaves perished just as a cargo of goods might have perished.”

It’s a sentiment that makes Granville’s blood boil. But to his dismay, the judge eventually rules in favor of the defense. He admits that what happened aboard the Zong was deeply regrettable, but under the current legal statutes, no crime was committed.

Despite the efforts of the prosecutors, the ship's crew will not be held accountable. But Granville Sharp won’t let that injustice be forgotten. Instead, he will embark on a campaign to reform the legislation upholding the slave trade, pioneering a movement that will eventually lead to abolition.

Act Three: The Slave Trade Act

It’s May 22nd, 1787; four years after the Zong's crew was found blameless for the massacre.

Granville Sharp sits inside a bookshop in London, peering around at the faces of the eleven men seated in a circle among the dusty shelves. The famous abolitionist is feeling somewhat out of place. This bookshop is the unofficial headquarters of London’s community of Quakers - a small denomination of Protestant Christianity. Granville isn’t a Quaker himself, and he disagrees with many of their beliefs. But one thing that unites Granville with the other men here this afternoon is their shared desire to abolish slavery.

Four years ago, after the murder charges brought against the Zong’s crew were dropped, Granville redoubled his efforts to expose the brutality of the slave trade. His letter to the Board of the Admiralty was ignored, so he changed his approach writing to as many newspapers as he could, raising awareness and building momentum for the anti-slavery movement in Britain.

Granville’s campaign soon came to the attention of William Dillwyn, a prominent Quaker. William promoted the cause of abolition among London’s Quaker community, and the events aboard the Zong became a central topic in abolitionist literature and even helped create the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Today is the first meeting of this newly-formed society. The organization aims to lobby politicians to make the slave trade illegal. And within a year, largely due to the efforts of abolitionists like Granville Sharp and other members of the society, the British parliament passes the first piece of legislation aimed at regulating the slave trade.

This Slave Trade Act of 1788 aims to reduce overcrowding and poor hygiene on slave ships. It also restricts the ability of ship's owners to take out insurance policies on the lives of enslaved people on board - a measure that is a direct consequence of the Zong massacre.

The act will also mark the first time the British parliament intervened in the unregulated Atlantic slave trade. But still, the trade will continue for nearly two decades. Additions to the Act will be made though, over the coming years, eventually culminating in the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which will finally and fully abolish Britain’s slave trade. Still, it will take another twenty-six years and the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 for slavery to be abolished in most British colonies - more than fifty years after 132 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard from the Zong slave ship on November 29th, 1781.


Next on History Daily. November 30th, 1932. The infamous outlaws, Bonnie and Clyde, rob their very first bank.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.