What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods
As we approach the anniversary of the 1807 Act designed to end the slave trade, I will be telling the terrible story of the 'Zong Massacre' of 1781, which opened some British eyes to the atrocity of slavery, on BBC Radio London.
When the slave ship Zong left Africa in September 1781, it was over-loaded. 470 enslaved men, women and children were crammed below decks, chained and in dark, filthy conditions. They had been kidnapped, and would have had little idea where they were headed.
They must have been terrified. I imagine mothers desperately fighting to stay calm for the sake of their children, holding their babies tight, perhaps trying to soothe them to sleep with familiar lullabies from home.
Thanks to the autobiography of formerly-enslaved writer and campaigner Olaudah Equiano, we know that the Africans onboard the Zong had probably never seen people behave with such uncivilised brutality as their white kidnappers.
Equiano tells us that on his own terrifying journey as a boy in the 1760s, he was deeply shocked by the callousness with which he saw the white men treat the crew as well as the Africans.
Worse was to come in 1781.
The Zong became becalmed in a windless zone known as the Doldrums. Captain Collingwood decided to 'jettison' some of the 'cargo' in order to get moving again. He also knew this had the significant additional advantage that his bosses could subsequently claim compensation- they couldn't if their victims died on board.
It took a few days- it was hard work, no doubt, for the tired, underfed crew to drag the Africans, fighting desperately for their lives, up to the deck. But they murdered at least 132 men, women and children, throwing them overboard to drown.
Another 10 people refused to be slung like garbage, and chose to jump overboard and end their own lives. Collingwood called this an 'act of defiance.'
When the ship finally arrived in Jamaica, the ship’s owner, James Gregson, filed an insurance claim. In it, he stated that the ship hadn't had sufficient remaining water to sustain his men as well as the African 'goods'. In fact, the Zong was found to have 420 gallons - 1,906 litres- of water still on board when it docked.
I discuss the subsequent legal battle on with Robert Elms show on his BBC Radio London show,
and consider the shocking but then
commonplace attitude of the ship's barrister when it was suggested this was murder:
‘What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder.’
I will also talk about two unsung heroines of the abolition movement- Mary Prince, a Black formerly enslaved woman, and Annabella Byron, widow of the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' poet.