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A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783

Trevor Burnard


L’assassinat de 132 captifs africains sur le Zong en novembre 1781 et la visibilité qu’acquit cet événement tandis que l’affaire était portée devant les tribunaux pour une question de dédommagement lié à l’assurance du navire devint une cause célèbre dans l’histoire de l'abolitionnisme au XVIIIe siècle, tant l’événement montrait avec force détails l’inhumanité de la traite négrière. On oublie souvent que les faits se produisirent en mer au sud-ouest de la Jamaïque pendant la Révolution américaine, époque où la Jamaïque était très mal en point. Cet article explore le contexte jamaïcain de cette sinistre affaire et fait le lien entre ce qui se passa à bord de ce navire tristement célèbre et l’évolution de la situation commerciale de la Jamaïque en temps de guerre, soulignant ainsi qu’il s'agit d'un événement aussi important pour l’histoire de la Jamaïque que pour celle de la Grande-Bretagne.

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  • 1 The main records of the case are the “Documents relating to the Ship Zong,” REC/19, National Mariti (...)
  • 2 The case led to laws being passed between 1788 and 1795 to prevent such an incident being tried in (...)

1Only one slave ship in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base goes by the name of the Zong. This one ship, however, is probably the most notorious of all the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic in the long period of the transatlantic slave trade. It is famous because of events that happened on the ship in late November and early December 1781 – the deliberate murder through throwing overboard of African captives in order to later claim insurance on these captives as lost cargo – that became the subject of an infamous court case in 1783.1 The abolitionist Granville Sharp tirelessly promulgated to a shocked public both the callous conduct of the crew of the Zong in murdering, on three separate occasions, 122 Africans and also the even more shocking ways in which the British legal system treated a case of what abolitionists thought was mass murder as a routine, if legally complicated, case of maritime fraud.2

  • 3 It is likely that the William landed its slaves in Kingston. The Zong engaged Kingston merchants Co (...)

2The 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 eastern 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.3

3Adrift, 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 (Walvin 99). 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 (Oldham; Armstrong; Lobban).

4The Zong case became a pivotal moment in the development of a humanitarian sensibility (Brown ch.5; Blackburn ch. 4; Oldfield ch.1). Lord Mansfield made a notorious comment adjudicating in the case when it came before the Court of King’s Bench on 22 May 1783. He stated that “The Matter left to the Jury was, whether [the mass murder arose] [...] from necessity [,] for they had no doubt (tho’ it shocks one very much) the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board.” His further comment that insurers had to pay up for dead slaves killed in an insurrection “just as if Horses were kill’d” but that insurers did not have to pay up for slaves dying naturally just as “you don’t have to pay for horses that die a natural death” caused consternation (Sharp Transcript 1-3, 20-21). Initially, the owners’ request for financial relief was granted and they received £3,660. The insurers appealed; Mansfield agreed with the insurers and ordered a new trial, which does not seem to have taken place, meaning that the owners of the Richard, previously the Zong, did not get their money.

5The 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. The argument that the counsel for the plaintiffs made was curious, because, mimicking the “valued policy” at the heart of the dispute, it argued that actions were taken to prevent a future event rather than in response to an event that had already happened. 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 Captn did what was right. [...] [There was] an absolute Necessity for throwing over the Negroes.” Kelsall claimed he objected at first but soon came around.

6Mansfield 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. In Jones v. Schmoll (1785), the underwriters were forced to pay the insurance on 19 slaves who had been killed in what the plaintiffs called “a mutiny.” In Rohl v. Parr (1796), the underwriters agreed to compensate the owners “by general average” for all slaves lost from insurrection amounting to more than five percent of the slave cargo. The crew on the slave ship Zumbee killed seven of 49 slaves in putting down an insurrection off Cape Coast in West Africa. As this was more than five percent of the slave cargo, the judges on King’s Bench found in favor of the owners of the ship and against the underwriters (Oldham 305, 309-10). 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 (Sharp Transcript 50-52).

7Was an insurrection likely? The jury at the jury trial on 6 March 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. David Richardson estimates 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 (Richardson; Taylor; Behrendt et al.).

8The crew had good reason to be anxious about their situation on 29 November when they realized that they were at least ten days’ sail from Jamaica with no more than four days’ supply of rationed water for themselves and 380 captive Africans. This slave ship was “in distress.” The journey was already lengthy. At 79 days’ duration on 29 November, it was nearly three weeks longer than the average slave journey to Jamaica in 1781. Moreover, the crew had known for nearly ten days that they had lost a lot of water from leaky casks and that the first and second tiers of water butts were exhausted. The Zong had enough water remaining after leaving Tobago on 20/21 November for ten to thirteen days at full rations but the captives, if not the crew, were probably already on short rations well before reaching Jamaica. Samuel Gamble faced the same problem on the Sandown in 1794. He put everyone on two-thirds rations for sixteen days before refilling water casks in Barbados. These restrictions led to sixteen of his crew absconding at Barbados (Mouser 104, 107-9). If so, this might help explain the higher than normal losses of captives (13.1 percent) that the Zong had sustained even before deciding to jettison “cargo” on 29 November. The ship was troubled in other ways, as well. The captain and first mate had quarreled, leading to James Kelsall being suspended between 14 and 29 November as first mate. The captain was sick, possibly delirious. It is likely, though no evidence directly supports this contention, that Robert Stubbs was spending some time as master of the ship, despite being a passenger and despite having not sailed a slave ship for at least a quarter century. At the very least, there was an absence of effective leadership at a very crucial moment in a troubled voyage.

9Most worryingly, the ship was seriously overcrowded and seriously undermanned. The usual maximum number of slaves carried by a slaver of the Zong’s size was around 250. The Michael, for example, a slaver of 132 tons going to Jamaica in 1781, embarked from Africa with 210 slaves and disembarked 195. Like the Zong, it left Africa with a crew of twenty. Seven crewmembers died or left en route. Its ratio of slaves to crew was 10.5 on departure and 15 on arrival. The average ratio of slaves to crew for ships going to Jamaica in 1781, excluding the Zong, was 8.91 when ships left Africa and 10.18 when the ships arrived in Jamaica. The Zong had a ratio of slaves to crew of 23.15 (19 crew and 440 slaves) when they left São Tomé and an extraordinary 34.5 ratio (11 crew and 380 slaves) on 29 November. In addition, only one ship voyaging to Jamaica in 1781 – the Jane, a vessel of 242 tons with 677 slaves, a ratio of 2.8 slaves per ton – was more crowded than the Zong, which had 2.26 slaves per ton. The standard slave to ton ration in the British transatlantic slave trade prior to the passing of the Dolben Act in 1788 was 1.60 (Klein 133; Eltis 125-28).

10Nevertheless, 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. Dr. Alexander Falconbridge described how bad things could get on a ship ravaged by disease: “the deck was covered with blood, and approached nearer to the resemblance of a slaughter-house than anything I can compare it to, [and] the stench and foul air were likewise intolerable” (Falconbridge 32). 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 (Weskett 525; Oldham 303-5).

11The second option was to throw overboard as many slaves as were deemed necessary for the crew’s survival and then try for landfall in Jamaica. After 132 slaves had been thrown overboard and a further 36 had died (with 30 left dead on the decks rather than being thrown overboard, as one would expect to have happened, if only to prevent the spread of disease), the crewing ratio of the Zong would have fallen into still high but not unreasonably high ratios. Ten men plus Robert Stubbs were on board the Zong when it sailed into Black River on 22 December 1781 with 208 surviving Africans – a ratio of 18.9 Africans per crew member. A figure of 19 Africans per crew member gave Collingwood some confidence that he could quell a slave uprising, whereas 34 Africans per crew member, as existed on 29 November, signaled trouble.

  • 4 Sharp was determined that the crew of the Zong be arraigned for murder and made his views as public (...)

12The third option was the one outlined by Kelsall in his interrogatory before 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. This, he declared, was “a fact which I am not really apprized of.” He reiterated his surprise shortly after: “I am not aware of that fact [.] I did not attend to it. [...] it is new to me. I did not know any Thing of it.” That slaves were thrown overboard after rain had fallen for several days, thus presumably alleviating the “perilous Necessity” the members of the crew were under in a ship short of water, was, to Mansfield, “a very material circumstance,” even if was “not agreed on by both sides.” 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 indeed fallen, then Gregson v. Gilbert was no longer an insurance trial but could be, as Granville Sharp insisted in his commentaries on the case after the verdict, a murder trial (Walvin 104; Krikler).4

13Rain did fall. Stubbs hints that it might have fallen as early as 1 December – the day of the second tranche of killings. Kelsall states more authoritatively that rain fell between 6 and 9 December. The fact of the rain supports Kelsall’s objections at the 29 November meeting of the crew that the Zong could have waited a few days before throwing slaves overboard. It had at least four days full rations of water. On short rations, the Zong could have watered crew and slaves (especially if only healthy slaves were given water) for the seven days between the first killing and the start of rain and could probably have sailed very close to the Jamaican coastline where help conceivably might have been at hand. But on 29 November, however, the crew agreed that an insurrection was imminent if action was not taken soon. Some crew then took 54 women and children from the hold and threw them overboard. No African man was killed in this first and especially pivotal action. Then the crew waited. They tacked against the wind and headed to the southwestern hamlet of Black River. That journey took much longer than the ten to fourteen days’ sail that Kelsall estimated it was likely to have taken from 29 November to reach land. If Kelsall was right about sailing times, the Zong should have reached Jamaica sometime between 8 and 12 December. By way of comparison, the log of the Sandown shows that on its return voyage to Britain from Kingston, it took twelve days to sail from the Grand Cayman Islands past Mattanzas on the north coast of Cuba to the Florida coastline (Mouser 118-19). Instead, it sailed with a diminishing slave cargo for at least a further ten to fourteen days. During those two “missing” weeks, they threw overboard another 78 Africans, in at least two separate batches.

14It seems difficult to believe that an insurrection was imminent on 29 November when the crew threw women and children out of cabin windows. Although the Zong had had a long journey and had been afflicted by more than normal levels of sickness, the condition of the slaves was still good. Kelsall noted that on 29 November the Zong had 380 slaves, “all of them in good health and condition.” The slaves thrown overboard were chosen “without Respect to sick or healthy.” They were all “marketable slaves.” Indeed, if the aim of throwing Africans overboard was less to preserve the ship from insurrection than to ensure that potential slaves arrived in the best possible condition, then Collingwood probably succeeded. The ship may have arrived “in great distress,” according to the Cornwall Chronicle, but the insurers disagreed. The ship, they averred, docked “in perfect safety and with Crew And the Rest of the Slaves in good health.” Getting rid of the less valuable women and children rather than high-value but potentially dangerous men, knowing that the Zong was arriving in a crowded marketplace, seems to make more sense as an insurance scam than as a genuine attempt to forestall insurrection.

15Matters may have changed by 1 December. One imagines that the days of 30 November and 1 December were extremely fraught on the Zong. Robert Stubbs claimed that he heard the “shrieks” of the women and children thrown “singly through the Cabin Windows” when he was in his own cabin. So too would have the captives locked below deck. Kelsall recounted how an African who spoke English had told him that the people shackled below decks “were murmuring on Account of the Fate of those who had been Drowned” and that the African pleaded on behalf of his fellow captives that “they might be suffered to live and they would not ask for either Meat or Water but could live without either till they arrived at their determined port.” How likely is it that all the captives chained below decks were willing to risk dying through starvation and dehydration? Is it not just as likely that some of the captives would have preferred to go down fighting rather than acquiesce to a slow, lingering death?

16It is probable that the crew would have thought these thoughts also on 1 December. It was now two days on from the events of 29 November and water supplies were running extremely low. Slaves would have got very little of whatever water had been distributed. It may have been on this day that “all apprehended [the slaves] should die of want of Water if they had not thrown the Slaves overboard to preserve the rest.” Here was the “Perilous Necessity.” And it may explain why the crew chose to throw overboard 42 “stout healthy Men slaves” – slaves that would have fetched a premium in the slave market but also the mostly likely slaves to overpower the crew and seize the ship. Kelsall tried to justify the killings by claiming that it was an act of perverse kindness, “the shortest and least painful Mode” of destroying them and thus kinder than “suffering them to expire by degrees.” Nevertheless, the accompanying statement – that if the killings had not taken place many of the Africans “would have been seized with Madness for want of water” – may have more accurately summarized the crew’s feelings on 1 December. They feared that the approaching “madness” of dehydrated Africans who knew that they too would be thrown overboard like their womenfolk and children would lead to an attack that would overwhelm the small complement of crew. They might also have calculated that the longer that the water shortage continued, the weaker that the crew would have got and the less likely that they could put down an insurrection. Taking 42 men, one by one, from a men’s quarter seething with discontent was problematic, increasing the possibilities of revolt, even if the men were heavily shackled, as male captives usually were.

17And then it rained, possibly on 1 December itself and more lengthily after 6 December. Sometime after 6 December and the arrival of rainwater came the most inexplicable act of the entire journey. A further 36 Africans were thrown or jumped overboard. Why would the crew do this? The threat of insurrection had been quelled (if it was to happen, it surely would have happened in the period of the first two killings, when tempers were raw and water shortage acute). The arrival of rainwater had reduced the immediate danger that the Zong was under. The rain was the “material circumstance” that changed the verdict in the trial. In the jury trial at Guildhall, the jury did not know that rain had fallen and found in favor of the plaintiffs. At King’s Bench, that it rained before some murders were committed became evident and led Mansfield to declare that there needed to be a new trial. We would like to know more about this third set of murders. Were the captives “stout and healthy” or like the thirty dead slaves lying on the deck that Stubbs said greeted Jamaicans on the ship’s arrival at Black River? On what day did the third lot of killings occur? Why did the third lot of killings occur at least a week after the second murders? Was this set of killings to stop the spread of disease or an act of greed by a compromised crew to maximize an insurance payout and thus make a bad voyage marginally profitable to their employers? If a third trial of the murders on the Zong had proceeded, we might know some of the answers to these questions. But, then again, we might not have heard anything about the Zong at all if this third set of murders had not occurred. One thought is that these murders were so unable to be justified by the commercial logic of the time that they aroused the suspicion of the insurers that they were being fleeced.


18The importance of the Zong lies beyond the simple facts of the case. It became the cause celebre that galvanized the anti-slavery movement from being a minor campaign by a set of marginal figures infected by evangelical enthusiasm to becoming the most significant moral campaign in British history. That remarkable change happened in a few short years in the mid-1780s. The Zong, as the most infamous atrocity in the Atlantic slave trade, played a pivotal role in the transformation of the antislavery movement. Opponents of the slave trade never failed to express disgust at what had happened off the seas of Jamaica in late 1781 and seldom missed a chance to fulminate against the inhumanity of a legal system that saw the murder and forced suicide of 132 Africans solely as an interesting example of marine insurance law. Fifty-eight years later, it was rehearsed once more in the grand celebratory narrative of the triumph of the antislavery movement written in 1839 by Thomas Clarkson, the great old man of the campaign whose long career in abolitionism was in part stimulated by his outrage about what had happened on the Zong. In 1788, Clarkson wrote of the Zong that it was an event “unparalleled in the memory of man [...] and of so black and complicated a nature, that were it to be perpetuated to future generations [...] it could not possibly be believed” (Clarkson 99).

19The subsequent history of the Zong – it struck a chord with the public and resonates in memory until the present day – might have given the Gregsons and Thomas Gilbert and his underwriting team pause. From the very long perspective, Gilbert’s decision not to accept the Gregsons’ claim and the Gregsons’ determination to fight that rejection in a court of law was seriously misjudged. From that decision, in part, came the beginnings of the destruction of their lucrative business. That happened in 1807. In retrospect, the underwriters should have accepted their loss on the premium. They probably would have done so if there had been only two sets of killings on the Zong. The claim then would have been for the replacement value of 92 slaves at £30 each, making a claim of £2,880, or a loss of £1,200 for the underwriters once the cost of the premium was deducted. That loss was worth bearing. It is unlikely, given the verdict of the 5 March trial, that the underwriters would have been successful in their case at court if only the first two killings had been under discussion. The rules of marine insurance law in respect of killing to prevent insurrection were sufficiently clear to make the Gilberts’ case hard to win. But one can understand why the Gilberts refused to pay. They became suspicious when they realized that the killings had gone on after the “perilous necessity” of preventing insurrection had diminished. So too did Mansfield. It was the murder of twenty-six slaves and suicide of a further ten Africans sometime between 1 and 22 December that cast doubt upon the credibility of the two witnesses and upon the judgement of the deceased captain everyone wanted to blame for the murders.

20The 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.

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Primary Sources

A Slaving Voyage to Africa and Jamaica: the Log of the Sandown, 1793-1794. Ed. Bruce L. Mouser. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana UP, 2002.

Clarkson, Thomas. Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. London: J. Phillips, 1788.

Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America. Ed. Elizabeth Donnan. 4 vols. Washington D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1930-1955.

Falconbridge, Alexander. An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa. London: J. Phillips, 1788.

Weskett, John. A Complete Digest of the Theory, Laws, and Practice of Insurance; Compiled from the best Authorities in different Languages ... with A Preliminary Discourse; Wherein are delineated the very great Disorders which prevail in Affairs of Insurance. London: Richardson and Urquhart, 1781.

Secondary Sources

Armstrong, Tim “Slavery, Insurance and Sacrifice in the Black Atlantic.” Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean. Ed. Bernhard Klein and Gesa Mackenthun. London: Routledge, 2004. 167-85.

Behrendt, Stephen D., et al. “The Costs of Coercion: African Agency in the Pre-Modern World.” Economic History Review 54 (2001): 454-76.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. London: Verso, 1988.

Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2008.

Eltis, David. The Rise of Atlantic Slavery in the Americas. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Krikler, Jeremy. “The Zong and the Lord Chief Justice.” History Workshop Journal 64 (2007): 29-47.

Lewis, Andrew. “Martin Dockray and the Zong: A Tribute in the Form of a Chronology.” Journal of Legal History 28 (2007): 357-70.

Lobban, Michael. “Slavery, Insurance and the Law.” Journal of Legal History 28 (2007): 319-28.

Oldfield, J.R. Popular Politics and British Anti-Slavery: The Mobilization of Popular Opinion against the Slave Trade. Manchester; New York: Manchester UP, 1995.

Oldham, James. “Insurance Litigation Involving the Zong and Other British Slave Ships, 1780-1807.” Journal of Legal History 28 (2007): 299-318.

Richardson, David. “Shipboard Revolts, African Authority, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” William and Mary Quarterly 58.1 (2001): 69-92.

Taylor, Eric Robert. If We Must Die: Shipboard Insurrections in the Era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2006.

Walvin, James. The Zong: A Massacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011.

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1 The main records of the case are the “Documents relating to the Ship Zong,” REC/19, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London (I refer to this document as Sharp Transcript) and “Answers of William Gregson (January 1784) and James Kelsall (November 1783),” E112/1258/173, NA. All references from the court cases not otherwise footnoted in this essay come from these sources.

2 The case led to laws being passed between 1788 and 1795 to prevent such an incident being tried in such a way ever again. The most important of these laws was the Dolben Act, named after its sponsor, Sir William Dolben, which in 1794 had an amendment passed specifically disallowing insurance claims when enslaved Africans were thrown overboard (Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America 2: 586). The amendment to the Act is 29 Geo. III c.66, XV.

3 It is likely that the William landed its slaves in Kingston. The Zong engaged Kingston merchants Coppell and Aguilar as factors in the sale of slaves. The Gregsons, the owners of the Zong and the William, overwhelmingly concentrated on Kingston as a place to discharge slaves in Jamaica. Of 83 voyages to Jamaica, landing 28,697 sales, only one voyage – that of the Zong in 1781 – was not to Kingston. All data relating to slaving voyages, unless otherwise indicated, come from the website Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base Moreover, according to James Kelsall, Luke Collingwood, despite being desperately ill, made his way immediately after the sale of slaves from the Zong to Kingston, in which town he quickly died. I have not found any record of Collingwood’s death in the Kingston Burial registers for this year. See Kingston Burial Register, 1722-1834, Jamaica Archives, Spanishtown, Jamaica.

4 Sharp was determined that the crew of the Zong be arraigned for murder and made his views as publicly known as possible. An interesting question is why Mansfield was determined not to widen the case into a murder investigation, as Sharp wanted and as counsel for the defendants asserted was true to the facts of the case. Krikler asserts that Mansfield’s judicial strategy must be seen in the context of his determination to protect the emerging system of commercial law and to maintain a commitment to certainty in the law over principle. He was concerned that a major statement influencing the development of marine insurance law not be derailed by transforming an insurance case into a case about murder. His eye was fixed on the questions of absolute necessity and the general average and did not want to weaken the import of these questions by being side-tracked into considering slaves not as property but as humans.

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Trevor Burnard, « A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783 », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 76 | 2019, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2019, consulté le 27 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.1808

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Trevor Burnard

Trevor Burnard is Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation and Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull. He has taught at universities in Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia and Britain. He is the author of numerous books on the Caribbean and the Chesapeake, including Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Jamaica in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020). He is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Online Bibliography in Atlantic History.

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