Home / Faculty Club / Lecture Series / Jyoti Mohan Lecture: The Zong Trial

Jyoti Mohan Lecture: The Zong Trial

Dr. Jyoti Mohan lectures at Course Hero headquarters on the history of the slave ship Zong, the British trial, and the abolitionist activism it inspired.

Dr. Jyoti Mohan: Students want to know why the lesson is important to them, what are they going to learn out of it, and not just history but life lessons. So we’re told that we’re supposed to provide learning outcomes for them, and as an example, I’ve created some of these learning outcomes. This particular lesson is meant to give you some historical understanding. We’re going to be using some primary and secondary sources, too, so you see how you can use primary and secondary sources and analyze those in the context of your topic. But then the larger life lesson comes to learn how to contextualize this historical knowledge you’ve learned, and use it [in] maybe current-day situations, and we’ll talk about some of those later on.


Jyoti Mohan, PhD

Lecturer of History, Morgan State University

PhD, MA, and BA in History

That being said, assuming that you have no knowledge whatsoever about Atlantic slavery—and we’re talking only about Atlantic slavery, right?—transportation of African slaves from the west, primarily from the west coast of Africa, to the New World. This is your crash course. Five-minute crash course in Atlantic slavery, before we go into the interesting stuff.

Atlantic slavery starts at the era of exploration. One of the first countries to try to explore the world through the oceans was Portugal. Portugal is this little green fellow up here, and as you can see, Portugal is really, really close to the coast of Africa, which we’ll talk about later. Portugal is also one of the first countries to explore the west coast of Africa. They eventually will colonize Brazil, OK? That’s one of the things over here, Portugal to Brazil. OK.

Initially, when the Portuguese explored the west coast of Africa, they encountered the slave trade. Slave trade has been common as long as human beings have been on the earth in civilization. We like to sell each other off and make a profit off it, OK? There was slave trade among the Africans, and the Portuguese thought, “Hey, well, that’s neat. I could use that as a luxury commodity, a slave in my house.” They tried to bring some slaves back to Portugal, then they said, “Let’s cut out the middle man and make a bigger profit.” They tried extending raids into West Africa. At this period of time, however, African empires were way too powerful, and they sent the Portuguese packing with a flea in their ear. The exchange rates are still very favorable between Portugal and Africa, so Portuguese say, “Well, you know, let’s not bother with trying to conquer the Africans anyway. We’ll just buy the African slaves from African slave traders, and bring them back. We still make a profit out of it.”

Initially, when slaves are brought back, they’re brought back to Europe, which doesn’t have much of a need for slaves, so slaves tend to be a luxury commodity. Next time you go to an art gallery and you see one of those early modern paintings, you might see an aristocratic woman with a bunch of little puppies—you know, lapdogs, as they call them—around, and behind her skirts, there might be a little black slave peeping out, too. Her little luxury pageboy, OK?

You do have some slaves going in there, but the bulk of the slaves, the need for them, came only with the conquest of the New World. In this case, we’re primarily talking about Brazil, which I already pointed out before, and then later on when England conquers the bulk of the Caribbean islands—Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago. Being the Americas, they were initially populated by Native Americans, but the Europeans are not really good employers, so they tend to kill off a lot of Native Americans, and so then they look around and say, “Well, who can we employ? We don’t want to work down in the mines. We want someone else to do the dirty work for us. Hey, what about the slaves?”

That’s when you get the beginning of Atlantic slavery, which is the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic Ocean, into Brazil—primarily Brazil, [and] a lot of it in the Caribbean islands. Very, very few come to America, the United States of America, OK? It’s part of a trade called the triangular trade, OK? What the triangular trade is … and the white triangle is to show you the rough shape of the triangle. It’s a trade that takes place between Europe, Africa, and the New World, OK?

Ships leave Europe carrying manufactured goods, guns, and booze. Mostly rum. They land on the west coast of Africa. That’s the red line, showing you the first route of the triangular trade. They offload the guns, the manufacture, and the rum, they take on a cargo of slaves. They then cross the Atlantic Ocean. This is the second leg of the ship’s journey. It is the middle part of the triangle, and that’s why it’s called the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage, the name “the Middle Passage,” has nothing to do with slaves themselves. It’s just because it was the middle leg of the ship’s journey, OK?

They cross over and they go to the New World, offload the slaves there, take on a cargo of plantation produce. It could be sugar, molasses, tobacco, cotton. Sometimes they’d go up to New England, where they’d get timber, fur, coal, and then make their way back to Europe. Eventually, when Europe comes into a period of time called the Industrial Revolution, this triangular trade and the plantation stuff going back to Europe is what’s going to drive those industries. That’s the raw material coming to the industries. They make a profit for a really long time, OK?

That’s the triangular trade, and just to give you a sense of how many slaves made it across, as you can see … and those of you who can’t see, I’m just going to tell you really quick. From here, we’re looking at Brazil, five million slaves to Brazil, and four and a half million to the West Indies or the Caribbean. Less than half a million up to the United States, OK? The primary ports, or the primary areas where the slaves were brought to, were Brazil and this area of South America, and this part, the Caribbean Islands. Haiti, for example, has a majority black population, because all the natives died, and then they brought all the African slaves over there to work the sugar plantations. Same with Brazil.

OK. Having said that, that’s your really brief crash course to the slave trade, all right? Now we move on to this court case, and that is the Zong. Very briefly, the Zong is a ship. It was a slave ship. It made a journey across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica, and it offloaded its goods in 1781, the end of 1781. Soon after, the owners of the Zong petitioned the insurance agent of the Zong and said, “We want to claim for loss of cargo. We lost a lot of our cargo on the way. We want to make an insurance claim.”

You know, insurance agents don’t like to pay out, so they said, “I’m not sure.” They took it to court in Jamaica, and the Jamaican court told the insurance agent they had to pay. The insurance agent wasn’t happy, and since they were British, they said, “We want it tried in a British court.” They came back to England, and two years after this whole debacle, in 1783, the two parties, the ship’s owners and the insurance agent, met once again for two days in a court of law. This was just to decide whether or not they could go for retrial. They were heard in a court of appeal that was headed by a man called Judge Mansfield. Judge Mansfield was very well known to be extremely, extremely attached to English law. He said, “I’m going to put aside all of my emotions and my feelings about it. It’s all about the law. I’m just going to hear the facts.” In fact, he is known by many legal scholars as … Judge Mansfield law is sort of a phrase among legal scholars.

He said, “This is a case of a policy of insurance upon the ship the Zong.” OK? “So don’t try to turn my court into a 3-ring circus.” Now, he reminded the court that the jury in Jamaica, when it had made its decision and said that the insurance agent owes the owners payment, had said that it has no doubt, although it shocks one very much, that the case of slaves was the same as if horses were thrown overboard. The question was whether there was not an absolute necessity for throwing them overboard to save the rest, and the jury thought there was, OK?

Now, here we come to the horrific part of the Zong. That is, 2 weeks after the papers were filed for the court case to be heard, a newspaper—two newspapers, the Morning Chronicle and the London Advertiser, broke the news: The so-called “cargo” were actually more than 200 African slaves that just had been thrown overboard and drowned, OK? They said their source was an anonymous letter, and the ship’s captain was a murderer to do such a thing. “We’re talking about murderers. We’re talking about inhumane acts. It’s un-Christian. How can we think of something like this? It’s not just cargo.”

The public by now, of course, was consumed by this description of this horrible slave ship. It’s like Jack the Ripper, right? This terrible slave ship sailing across, and these unhappy souls screaming their hearts out, and being thrown one by one overboard and drowning to their deaths in the Atlantic, right? You have to remember that the slave trade was not very well known in England. Unless you lived in a port city in England, unless you actually participated in the slave trade as a sailor or someone on board the slave ship, which was a minority of Englishmen, most English people knew nothing about slavery or the slave trade. They saw a few Africans on the street, OK? But we’ve seen Africans on the street as far back as Shakespeare, who talked about Othello the Moor. What’s the big deal, OK? Most people really knew nothing about the slave trade. This is their first introduction to the fact that their country makes a huge profit off of transporting hundreds of thousands of African people, sometimes killing them in cold blood for profit, OK?

HIST 102 World History from 1500–Present

See materials

This is also a period of time when Evangelical Christianity is beginning to take hold, so this is another problem. Can it be a Christian act to do something like this, right? Now they want to know more, and the newspapers, of course, you can think of newspapers in the 18th century as the paparazzi of today. Tabloids. They want to publish anything that the readership will read, and if this is something public interest is interested in, we’ll find out more and we’ll publish it so our readership goes up, OK?

By the time, in May 21st and 22nd, when the case was heard in Judge Mansfield’s court, the courtroom was full of people. Journalists looking to publish a sensational story, some concerned members of the British public, former slaves who are now free blacks looking to see what the verdict is going to be, how it’ll impact them, OK? Representing the insurance underwriter, Mr. Gilbert. Now we have this side of the Zong, OK? This is what their team said. The insurance team said that, “We should not have to pay insurance for the Zong, because of the following reasons.” Let’s lay out the claim first, OK?

The Zong was insured by the owners of the ship Zong, a man called Mr. Gregson and his other associates, for a total sum of £8,000, OK? Insurance was a standard insurance policy, which meant at that time that we would pay them if slaves died because they fell sick and died on the ship, if they were killed, if they died because they stopped eating, or for some other natural cause—or, as sometimes happened, if slaves rebelled on this ship and the crew had to kill them to keep them under control. Remember, once the slaves set foot on land, insurance policy is done. We only cover when they’re on the sea, in the ship, OK?

For obvious reasons, if you have a sick slave who might fetch less than full market value when he’s sold in auction, it might be better for you to kill him on the ship than let him sail for less than your full profit. There’s constantly a tussle for insurance claim and owners of the ship, right? You can see how insurance agents, even back then, were hawkeyed about any possible misuse of insurance.

In 1782, Gregson and Company, the owners of the ship, filed a claim for the total amount of £4,000, claiming £30 per head of lives lost. Now, Gilbert looked it over, and he said, “Well, some slaves died out of sickness. We’re not disputing that. But about 145 slaves who don’t seem to have been sick, who did not rebel, there seems to be no reason for them to die, but the captain threw them overboard and drowned them. Why should we pay for them? There was no reason for them to die, so if you caused that loss of cargo, we should not have to pay.”

The ship’s crew claims they had to throw these slaves overboard because they were running low on water and food. We argue that running low on water and food is not an insurance matter, because that was bad judgment on the part of the captain. It’s not because the slaves ate too much. It was bad judgment on the part of the captain, and that’s not covered by insurance, OK?

Now, here are the reasons why we say the captain had bad judgment. First of all, the ship was overcrowded. A ship which was the size of the Zong was meant to carry a total of 193 people, crew included, but we know that they had at least 442 slaves plus 17 members of crew. That’s more than double. Now, if you fit that many human beings on the ship, you’re going to have to find space to carry that much food and water. How are you going to fit that much food and water on a ship that’s not large enough? That’s our first point. The captain could not have possibly loaded up enough supplies for the number of people that were loaded on the ship. That’s not an insurance problem. That is negligence on the part of the captain, OK? That’s a serious question of, “Did he lack the judgment to command this ship?”

Next, we’re going to say they only had 17 members of a crew. How can 17 members of crew manage 442 slaves? That’s not enough, OK? Not only is it not enough, there were insufficient supplies to get across the Atlantic. The obvious problems of overcrowding on the Zong were made evident by the fact that by November 27, now, the Zong left Accra, in Africa, on September the 6th. An average journey of this size would have taken about two months max, OK? November 27, they’re still in the sea, and by November 27, about 62 Africans and two crew members have died already of sickness, and of various other diseases, OK? We’re not disputing paying insurance for these guys.

The next problem is, in mismanagement, we’re going to claim that we don’t know who commanded the ship. The captain of the ship, a Mr. Collingwood, was supposedly an experienced slaver, or a slave ship captain, according to the owners of the ship. We dispute that. We don’t think he was experienced, and it shows in his judgment. First of all, we have done some digging into Mr. Collingwood’s past, and we’ve found that while he was the ship’s surgeon on other slave ships, this was his first journey as captain of the ship. Now, ship surgeons and ship’s captains have different jobs. A surgeon’s job is to keep the cargo healthy, to make sure that he chooses healthy people to get on board the ship. He doesn’t have to navigate. He doesn’t have to make decisions of command, and navigation, and supplies. That’s a captain’s job, and clearly this guy didn’t know what he was doing, OK?

The other thing that we have to show that he didn’t know what he was doing was, he was sick for most of the voyage. He seems to have spent most of the voyage down in his cabin, retching violently. Who took over? At least initially, we know that the first mate, a man called Mr. James Kelsall, took over command of the ship. As long as the ship was under Mr. Kelsall, it seems to have been OK. But then Captain Collingwood and Kelsall had a fight over something, and he fired him. After that, things get murky. There was one passenger aboard this ship, a man called Robert Stubbs, who was a murky, evil personality if we’ve ever seen one. Very unsavory character, and he was on his way back to England, being recalled for brutality in the slave trade. Come on. Brutality in the slave trade? You must have been something else, OK?

Maybe the captain asked Robert Stubbs to take over, but we know it didn’t happen officially, because in the ship’s muster, which is the record, he only appears as “passenger.” Never appears as “person of command.” OK? We know that Stubbs is illiterate, so clearly if he can’t read, how is he going to navigate? The other problem is, we don’t have a ship’s log. A ship’s log is like your daily journey diary, right? Your journal. It tells you the decisions that were made on the ship, how much food was given, who was punished, who was not, what decisions were made in navigation and stuff like that, but the log is missing. Very suspicious. It’s completely missing. It’s not just missing a few pages. There’s no log, and we don’t like that. We think it was intentionally destroyed, or worse, OK? We think they’re covering up something.

But even though the log is missing, we know from circumstantial evidence—apart from, this slide just reiterates all the missteps on the Zong—we know from circumstantial evidence that the Zong also made a lot of navigational problems, OK? First of all, they got caught in the doldrums. Anybody know what the Atlantic doldrums are? You kind of go around and round.

Speaker 1: Oh. I was going to make a guess it’s probably an area where there’s no wind.

Mohan: Yeah. Well, you don’t have motorized ships, right? So there are wind-sail ships. They have to follow the ocean current. You have to plan your journey when you’re going to catch a current and go through. If you get stuck in the Atlantic doldrums, you’re just sailing around aimlessly, sometimes in a circle, again and again. You’re not going anywhere. They got caught in the doldrums, something that an experienced captain would never have happen to him, and then when they get towards the Caribbean and they see Jamaica, somebody apparently says, “Hey, that’s not Jamaica. We think it’s Saint-Domingue.” Saint-Domingue is modern-day Haiti. Anybody, Haiti. What do they speak, apart from English?

Speaker 2: French.

Mohan: Right. French colony. Saint-Domingue was the name that was given to the French colony. The British and French are at war. Europeans hate each other. They’re fighting and they’re stealing from each other, so you don’t want to land on an enemy colony, because they will seize your cargo and your ship. They see Jamaica. They say, “Hey, that belongs to the French. Let’s not go there,” and they sail past it. And they only realize they sailed past it when they are 300 miles away, 10–14 days away from Jamaica. Math and navigation is not my thing, but I think I could tell Jamaica from a distance, OK?

At this point in time, James Kelsall, who gave a testimony to the previous jury, said, “Well, this is the point where we panicked, because we said, ‘Oh, my god. We’re 14 days away from Jamaica, but we only have enough supplies for 4 days.'” OK? This is 27th or 28th November, so now we have the horrific events that follow. The next day, and this is all according to James Kelsall’s testimony, right? The next day, November 29th, the crew meet in a huddle and they decide something has to be done. “Let’s lighten the load.” That’s what they called it. Initially, Kelsall says, “You know, I resisted. I said no, but they all overrode me.” At this point, Kelsall was not in charge. We don’t know who was in charge. Collingwood was sick. He was throwing his guts up in his cabin. Who commanded the ship? We don’t know. No one’s taken responsibility, OK?

Next day, they round up 54 women and children and they pitch them through the cabin windows of the ship so that the other slaves will not know and cause a ruckus. They screamed. They screamed, and they kicked, and they shrieked, because they were hurt. Two days later, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard, and these male slaves were handcuffed, because they didn’t want them to try and rebel and cause the crew any trouble. Instead of having to shoot them, it’s just much easier to just dump them in the ocean, right? Then they followed, and they continued to pitch 36 more in the next few days. Apparently, 10 slaves who knew that sooner or later they were going to be pitched overboard, decided to take their fates into their own hands and they jumped overboard. The crew did not like this, and they called this an evil act of defiance. “I get to decide when you go overboard. You don’t.”

These slaves have been thrown overboard. They reach Jamaica finally on 22nd December, OK? And Collingwood goes ashore, and soon after, he croaks. He kicks the bucket. He dies, and the log disappears with him, so we don’t have any testimony for Collingwood. But what we do know is when the inspectors came on board the ship and took stock of the supplies, 420 gallons of water were in those barrels. “You said you threw them overboard because you didn’t have enough water? Well, apparently not. So why should we pay? We refuse to pay.” That’s what the insurance position is, OK?

Now, because we’re all reasonable people, because we’re fair, we want to give them a chance, let’s see what the other side has to say. Keep in mind the other side is represented by Britain’s Solicitor General, like Attorney General, OK? Like Jeff Sessions representing the ship’s people. That’s how important Britain’s commerce was to the institution. He heads the legal team, representing the Zong‘s owner, OK? And they created their entire argument around one word: “Necessity.” “We didn’t do it out of cruelty. We didn’t do it because we liked to see them suffer. We had to do it. There was no other option.”

Let’s see why there was no other option, OK? We know from the testimonies of Robert Stubbs, the only passenger on the ship, and James Kelsall, the first mate, that the crew took the decision out of necessity. Both of them have said that it was absolutely essential. There was no choice available to them, all right? Now, it is the position of the legal team representing the owners that had this decision not been taken, had slaves been rationed of food and water, or worse, if we’d stopped feeding and watering them, they might have rebelled. “We might have had a mass insurrection on our hands, which would have led to us killing more than we pitched overboard, OK? We don’t take these things lightly, OK? We don’t want to throw them overboard, but we had to. It was a necessity.”

“The ship’s log is missing. Yeah. We know it’s a problem, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, I swear on it. The ship’s log belongs to the captain of the ship. Collingwood fell sick. He went off on shore. Probably the log went with him, and when he died, it disappeared with him. Maybe it’s in his grave. You want to go dig it up? That’s our explanation.” Very rational explanation for why the log is missing, OK?

Next, we’re talking about Collingwood’s ability to captain the ship. “We vigorously reject all such aspersions. It’s a witch hunt, I say. All these decisions were made following what is very common in ship boat practice, OK? It’s very common in all ships who carry out the slave trade across the Atlantic, OK? We know that getting rid of cargo, lightening the load, jettisoning the cargo is an accepted practice of the slavers. None of us take it lightly, but it has to be done sometimes. It is a necessity, we do it, OK?

“Finally, the insurance claims we had 420 gallons on board, and we were not suffering at all? Well, contrast that to Robert Stubbs’s argument that when we sailed into Black River, Jamaica Harbor, 30 slaves were lying dead on the deck of the ship, dead from starvation. And if you don’t want to believe Stubbs, we have the corroboration of a local Jamaican newspaper that wrote an article and pointed out that the Zong was in obvious distress. See? Even after throwing 145 overboard, we were still suffering, which shows you how bad our situation was. The idea that my owners killed these slaves just to collect £30 per slave, I reject that. I vigorously reject that. I call it a witch hunt. I say it is not true. Leave these good, upstanding lawful people alone.” OK? There is where it stands.

What I’d like you to do is, having heard both sides, I need a show of hands. How do you think the judge would have decided? Do you think the judge would have said the insurance should pay? Those who think that insurance should pay, show of hands, please? Those of you who think that the judge says, “No. Insurance doesn’t need to pay. It was obvious negligence on the part of the ship.” Oh, very clever. The rest of you are sitting on the fence. “I knew that! I knew that! I knew that! I just didn’t raise my hand. I just knew that.”

Oh. Oh. See? See? See? Yes?

Speaker 3: Do we know more information about the judge?

Mohan: Judge Mansfield?

Speaker 3: Yeah.

Mohan: I told you, it’s called Judge Mansfield law. He was a man of the law. All about the law, the law, the law. “I don’t care about my feelings. It’s about the law.” What does the law say? “I’m not interested in…. ” And remember, this is insurance court, OK? “Don’t come and tell me about poor people dying and stuff like that. I’m just deciding an insurance matter.” It’s a commercial case, clear and simple. We’re deciding a commercial case. We’re not talking about the humanitarian argument here. Yes?

Speaker 4: Were there any other cases that were referenced, similar to this one, where maybe it wasn’t slaves, but other cargo was dumped into the sea?

Mohan: This is a precedent-setting case, which is why I’m talking to you about it. I wouldn’t have said, “Hey, by the way, this is the 20th one in the line.” All right. Apparently, the majority decides—you don’t count, because you already saw the slide show, right? Apparently, the majority … yes?

Speaker 5: I have one question. Were there anything said where…. Did they have a slave in the courtroom present, who could testify? Or all the slaves were just dumped in the [unintelligible]—

Mohan: What, like horses? Can horses talk? Can wood talk? It’s cargo. First of all, they’re all in Jamaica.

Speaker 5: OK, so no one.

Mohan: They’re all sold in the Caribbean. They’re not here. And why? What is their relevance to this commercial case? It’s a commercial case, remember?

All right. The majority of you seems to think the judge would have said they don’t need to pay. OK. Well, you’re right. Judge Mansfield ruled that insurance did not need to pay. Well, he didn’t rule that insurance did not need to pay, honestly. All he ruled was, “I think this case can go for a retrial.” OK? That’s all this was about. “I think they’re entitled to a retrial. Let a jury decide whether or not they should pay or not.”

And why? Not because of the evidence I have provided you, but because one more piece of evidence came to light. A testimony, an affidavit, an affidavit which was legally bound and sworn to by James Kelsall, an affidavit that came to light that revealed that on December 1, the day on which they threw 42 male slaves overboard, handcuffed and in irons, it rained. It rained for three days and three nights, continuously, without stopping. They collected six casks of rainwater. That six casks of rainwater was enough for 11 days, more than enough to make it to Jamaica, but they still threw 36 people overboard after that. They didn’t need to throw them overboard, but they did.

Mansfield, despite his feelings, said he would agree to a retrial. It never went to a retrial. The ship’s owners figured it was a losing case anyway, and they said, “Fine, whatever. We’re not going to claim from insurance.” Insurance said, “Well, if they’re not going to sue us to pay—for us to pay them, then we don’t care. We don’t want to pay a legal cost, so we’ll just leave the status quo.” Gregson went back to Liverpool and proceeded to have a long and very prosperous career as the head of a corporation of several slave ships, plying its way across the Atlantic. That’s it. That’s all we have of the Zong in the legal records—but here’s where the people took over.

What was a dry insurance case now comes into public opinion. The person who converts the Zong from an insurance case to a humanitarian case is a man called Granville Sharp. He’s white, and he was a clerk in one of the shipping offices. Not a very rich man or anything, by any standards. He was an abolitionist, and he firmly believed in abolition because of his Christian beliefs. He was a very devout man, and he thought, “There is no way we will not have a reckoning of our sins as slave owners and slave masters on Judgment Day.”

Even before the trial, or even before the hearing for the retrial, Granville Sharp was alerted to the case of the Zong by a fellow abolitionist, a man called Olaudah Equiano, a fascinating, fascinating guy, because he was a black slave who was taken, had a very storied career, finally wound up being baptized under the name Gustavus Vassa, and he was baptized, and he earned his freedom from his master, and so he was an emancipated slave who was now a free Englishman living under the name of Olaudah Equiano. His autobiography is online for free for everyone. He was one of the most visible sources of this period, firsthand sources, and he was an abolitionist.

Equiano saw this little thing about the Zong and alerted Granville Sharp. Sharp then dashed off several letters to people, because he wanted … “This case is—what are we, crazy? We’re trying it in insurance court? This should be a murder case. I want to try these people for murder.” OK? Now, who did he write it to? The Solicitor General, John Lee, who responded, “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattel, or goods. Blacks are goods, and property. It is madness to accuse these well-serving, honorable men of murder. They acted out of necessity, and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship, to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-traveled captain, held in the highest regard, is one of folly, especially when we’re talking of slaves. The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.” He refused to take up the charges and dismissed them out of hand, saying, “There’s no question. If we don’t consider blacks as human beings, how can we treat this as a case of murder?”

Grenville Sharp decided on a different tactic. He decided to go to the court of popular appeal, public opinion. He said, “All right. You don’t want to do this officially? We’ll do this unofficially.” All right? Here’s some of the things he did. He started bombarding everyone he could think of. Officials, the admiralty, all the admirals. Anybody who was involved in the slave trade. He wrote to the newspapers. He contacted all the religious men that he could think of, and he told them all about the terrible, terrible situation aboard the slave ships. He didn’t talk about necessity and economy. He talked about these poor souls and the Christian necessity of saving them, OK?

Of course, the newspapers, like I said, wanted a sensational story, so they started publishing these things. What did they learn in the process? In 1783, the year that the retrial was set, the Gentleman’s Magazine described him as “a true patriot, a true Christian, who has nobly stepped forth, and at his own expense, instituted a criminal process against those workers of wickedness.” “All right. If people want to go about that the Christian route, I’ll do it. I’ll do what it takes to reach my end goal.” Right?

Now what we have is, representing the Zong case in humanitarian terms. He was the first man to call it a massacre. He influenced the team for the insurance to … he persuaded them to continue in the court to use adjectives like poor, pathetic, massacre, slaves, these poor souls, even though Mansfield was not having it. He objected several times, but this man nevertheless said—represented in humanitarian terms, as a human tragedy, OK?

He also gave a number of public lectures about the evils of the slave trade. Among the things that people learned were—the next one is going to show you how a slave ship was packed. This is a lithograph from a court case on board the slave ship Brooks. This is how they were packed like animals, OK? This is the cross-section of the ship. The bottom is used for food, and supplies, and ballast. This empty portion is food supplies and ballast. This area, which is consisting of bumps, this area all of bumps, up here, up here, and you can see this—this is all slaves, OK? If you look at it from the top, this is how closely they were packed. Each line that you see here is a leg of a slave. This is how they were packed. Two months, if you’re lucky, like this.

Here we go. Here’s another one, which shows you a close-up, all right? Keep in mind the slaves were in irons this whole time. You can see them laying next to each other. They were shackled by their necks, their hands, and their feet, and shackled to the person next to them on both sides. If one person moved, then the entire line was disturbed. They were branded with hot irons before getting on the ship. You can see how they maximized the place. Every available inch of space is used, OK?

Equiano, the redoubtable Olaudah Equiano, who wrote his autobiography, described being packed into the ship like this. “The closeness of the place and the heat of the climate added to the number in the ship which was so crowded that each of us had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us. This produced copious perspirations, so that the air soon became unfit for respiration from a variety of loads and smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, many of which died.”

OK, now here’s another one. In particularly overcrowded ships, they perfected a technique called “the coffin position.” You’re going to see this. Please note they are back to front. They spent about 10 hours of each day, at least 10 hours of each day like this, OK? And the last one, if they’re allowed to sit up, is a shelf which is also a lithograph. The shelf is 3 feet, 3 inches high, so they’re sitting up, but there are 3 feet, 3 inches. Now, imagine sitting up in a space 3 feet, 3 inches. This much, OK? And you’re packed like this. Sometimes the shelves were between 2 to 4 feet, and they were like bookshelves. They would maximize it by placing wooden shelves.

The slaves, if it was maximized, as in the case of the Zong…. Imagine, the Zong is a small ship. It’s supposed to carry 193 people. They’ve got 450-something people, which is including the crew. How are they going to make room for all these people? They bookshelf it, OK? The space in the bookshelf, the wooden shelves, would be something like 2 to 4 feet, and the slaves would crawl in, lie down, and the next one crawl in, lie down. That’s how they would spend all night, and they have only this much space, so you look up, and the board is right there. Now, you tell me, even if you don’t have claustrophobia, can you stand it? Some of them died of claustrophobia. The stink. Can you imagine the stink? Can you imagine the stink?

Now, here’s the thing. Bathrooms. Come on. Human necessity. Oh, the humanity. We gotta go, right? What did they do? They put one bucket at the end of each aisle. Wait a second. I’m tied neck, hands, and heels. If I move, then I have to take the whole line with me, right? Are they going to come? Are they not going to come? Forget it. I’ll just go where I am. Seasickness. For most of them, this was their first sea journey. Throwing up. They lay in it. They lay in all of this stuff. So obviously, sickness is going to spread, and if you’re so close, everyone going to fall sick real fast. Dysentery was very common. People died from it, right? Smallpox, cholera, contaminated water, right? Ship’s crew didn’t really want to go down there, because it stank so much. Sometimes they would lower buckets of food down from the top, and they would … whatever. “We don’t want to go in there. It stinks.”

Every morning, the ship’s surgeon would go, and if anyone looked dead or sick, he would give orders for them to be freed from their chains, and they’d be pitched overboard. If you’re sick, you’re going to be thrown overboard, OK? Because it’s not worth it to keep you and have you make anyone else sick. A very feared thing was a thing called ophthalmia, which was a very contagious eye disease. Within a couple of days, the entire cargo could go blind, which means what? I don’t care if you’re blind, but you’re not worth a penny to me blind, OK? These are the conditions on board the slaver. Some of them were driven insane by claustrophobia. Some of them went mad, and if they did, and they ran here and there, they were flogged to death or clubbed on the head and pitched overboard, OK? It was a very, very cruel business.

During periods of good weather, the slaves would be brought on deck in the morning, around 9:00 in the morning, and the men would continue to be shackled together, because they are a threat. Women and children would sometimes be freed from their shackles. Sometimes, people tried to throw themselves overboard. “I’d rather kill myself than live in these conditions.” So slave ships started coming up with this trick. They placed fishing nets all around the perimeter of their ships. “See, if I throw you overboard, that’s my prerogative. You’re my property. I own you. You’re not allowed to destroy yourself, OK?”

This is them, and then, “We need to keep you guys in good condition for resale. You’re sitting and lying down for such long periods, we need to make sure you’re strong, so we’re going to make you exercise. Shackled together, we’re going to make you dance. How are we going to force you to dance? We’re going to whip the deck around you.” You can see over here in this one, here, they’re whipping, and these guys are being forced to dance up and down. Clearly, if you’re dancing over there, this part is going to get bloodied, right? Too bad, OK? That’s the least of your worries. The worst of the whips was something called a “cat o’ nine tails.” Has anyone heard of that? It’s got 9 little whip thingies. The end of each whip has a knot, and it’s dipped in tar. One flick with a cat o’ nine tails could tear open an adult man’s back, OK? Flogging was very common.

This is also a period of time where the rhythm for the dancing would be pounded on an African drum or iron kettle, sometimes with a banjo. Later on, when they’re thinking about ways to construct their own culture, the diaspora culture, some of these things will come to pass. Then at sunset, they’d go back down between decks.

If you refuse to dance, you get whipped. This is an actual print. The next one is an actual color print that was published in a newspaper, and the fact that the newspaper is showing the captain as this evil-looking rogue shows you the way public opinion is swinging now, OK? This shows an African girl who’s being suspended by her ankle. The man is a man called Captain John Kimber, who’s standing on the left with a rope or with a whip in his hand. It shows the slave ship Recovery, where she was whipped to death for refusing to dance naked on the deck of the slave ship. This happened in 1792, years after the Zong, and everyone involved in this was acquitted. No one had faced charges, OK? Worse than this was a practice of bed warming for women. If crew wanted anybody, “You, there. Come to my cabin and warm my bed.” OK? The rape of the women and adolescent girls and children was a common practice on the ship, too.

About 9:00 in the morning, slaves were given the first meal of their day, and this is an interesting thing for those who are scholars of this time and this era, because the slaves from different parts of Africa were given slightly different meals. The bulk of it was a starch, OK? Because you’re trying to fill their bellies with the cheapest possible thing. It was a starch. Sometimes it might have a few pieces of raw meat in it. Sometimes—wait, where’s my other one? I had another picture in here. It’s not showing up. At this time, they had a small little metal water container called a pannikin, which contained a half pint. They got a half pint of water throughout the day. That was it, even when they sailed into tropical conditions.

There we go. It’s mostly kind of starch. Yams, and tapioca, and cassava, and that kind of thing. Sometimes people gave them a second meal in the evening, which consisted of horsebeans. These are broad beans, the beans from inside broad beans, which are boiled down until they are pulp, then they add huge amounts of palm oil to it, OK? Because you’ve got to have palm oil, you’ve got to have the starch to keep them strong and make sure they don’t lose weight, and then it tasted so horrible that people couldn’t stomach it, so they’d put large amounts of pepper, which they called slabber sauce. That’s where Tabasco comes from, y’all. That’s the history of the African-American diaspora having this thing about pepper sauce and hot sauce. It comes from here. They covered it in that so that it was somewhat palatable, OK? This is the kind of food that they got on board the ship.

All right. Whenever you’re ready. But worse than this is periods of bad weather. If it rained, if the wind was too much, slaves never got to come up on deck. They spent the entire 24 hours chained to each other, laying down on those overcrowded shelves under the main deck, OK? There was blood, vomit, urine, feces, everything. Sometimes if it was bad weather, they weren’t even fed properly, right? It’s a huge recipe for disaster. This is what the British public learns from Granville Sharp.

Slaves did try to resist. They tried to rebel sometimes. They were shot. They tried to throw themselves overboard, they put fishing nets around it. They tried to go on a hunger strike. Not allowed. “You can’t starve yourself and ruin your body. Not on my watch.” They had a number of torture instruments. The particularly horrible one was called a speculum oris, which was used for force feeding, and this cartoon over here shows you how it was done. It was wooden or steel. They’d shove it into the closed mouth of the slave, often breaking many teeth in the process, then using a thumbscrew, they would turn it around and open it, and then pour the food down.

This is from the National [Great Blacks in Wax] Museum in Baltimore. This is an example of force feeding. You see they’re holding him, and there’s like a funnel-like thing, and they’re pouring it down. If he threw up, they made him eat that. Sometimes they would pour melted lead down their throat. Sometimes they would burn their lips with hot coals to force them to open up their mouths. All in all, “You can not harm yourself. You are my property.”

This is a couple of different images showing slaves…. Well, in the next one, when it comes on. Showing slaves being thrown overboard. What Sharp pointed out, in both Stubbs’s and Kelsall’s testimony, is that everybody heard these slaves shrieking and begging for mercy when they were thrown overboard. Kelsall even noted that he was accosted by one African slave who told him, who begged him. They knew they were all going to die, and he said, “We promise we won’t ask for any food or water until we reach the port of destination. Just don’t kill us.” They didn’t listen.

Of the 145 slaves that were thrown overboard, one man managed to swim back to the ship alive. That’s how badly they wanted to live. Contrary to normal commercial sense, Kelsall admitted they didn’t choose the weakest or the most sick slaves. They chose them at random, without any regard to who was more salable or not, OK? They were all healthy and marketable slaves. It is from these lectures, it is from these newspaper articles that public opinion is galvanized against the slave trade. By 1788, Parliament is flooded with petitions to do something. “The government needs to do something.” Finally, citizens are stepping up.

The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade is founded in 1787. The Zong stood for every slave ship by now. The horrors that have [surfaced] on board the Zong stood for every ship crossing and making the Middle Passage. Here you see, in the abolitionist movement, you see, “Am I not a man and a brother?” This is that Christian thing. They’re human beings, too. “I’m not a horse. I’m not chattel.”

Finally, to show you how powerful the influence of the Zong was, abolitionists like Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano, William Clark, Thomas Clarkson, James Ramsey, John Newton—who is famous for being the person who wrote “Amazing Grace,” the hymn “Amazing Grace,” based on his experiences aboard a slave ship—and finally William Wilberforce. Atlantic slave trade in England was banned in 1807.

Now, be careful when you say things, OK? Because this is only the slave trade. That’s what they’re saying is: You can’t take slaves from Africa across the Atlantic and sell them there. Slavery is still alive and kicking, so if you’re already a slave, you’re fine. Slavery was only banned in all British lands in 1833. Thomas Clarkson wrote a book describing the entire process of the abolition movement, and his description of the Zong moved John Turner, the great British painter in oils, so much—he was famous for painting seascapes—that he made this painting in 1840, called The Slave Ship. It was exhibited during the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition of 1840, just one month before the opening of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. In particular, if you look, you see the slaves drowning over there, and they have chains on their hands like the description of the slaves on the Zong. The Zong came to represent everything that was wrong, and that’s how people took action.

Now, this is an example of the Zong, OK? It was a commercial case. People made the best of what they have. When I say “people,” Granville Sharp. “OK. I can’t sue them for murder? I’ll do it a different route.” OK? Now we can apply this to other things. I asked my daughter who’s in high school, “What are the things that bother you right now?” She said, “Well, we’re seeing debates on gun control. We’re talking about marijuana law. We’re talking about immigration reform, the DACA Dreamers.” How can we use lessons like this to work in baby steps, but sort of create a system that we want from within? The Zong can give us a very valuable lesson in how to do that. That’s it.

Leave a reply

Have you tried this in any classes you teach? Would you like to try it? Share your questions, critiques, comments, and insights below.

What Is Course Hero?

Course Hero is an online learning platform where you can access course-specific study resources contributed by a community of students and educators.

What Is the Faculty Club?

The Faculty Club is a multi-disciplinary community of educators sharing ideas to advance innovation and celebrate excellence in higher education.