Professor James Walvin has written a shocking book on one episode of many in the annals of slavery, namely about an event which took place towards the end of the eighteenth century. The Black Holocaust was thought about, planned and executed by the greedy, immoral and corrupt merchants of human bodies and its inception and implementation were to be found in Africa and the slave ships which were bound for the West. More than 12 million blacks were deported and enslaved in the USA, while many more millions were sent to other places in the Western Hemisphere to work in the tobacco and sugar plantations. Water was especially important on a slave ship, because of the hard conditions which were a part of any voyage, particularly when those ships were packed and crammed with hundreds of Africans in a crowded, dehydrating and suffocating environment. The final destination of the Zong was Jamaica.
Any slave voyage which started from the Africa entailed horror stories and the story of "The Zong" is just one minor example. The more a slave ship was at sea, the more difficult the human problems on board. In the case described here, Captain Collingwood who was in charge, decided that there would not be enough water on his ship for everyone, so he decided to throw one-third of his human cargo into the sea. In other words, he and others were responsible for the murder of 132 slaves.
As Walvin writes, "the killings took place in small, manageable batches. The men were thrown overboard 'handcuffed and in Irons'", while a further thirty-six Africans died before reaching Jamaica. The Gregson syndicate, which owned the ship, did not see this as a disaster, and it decided to turn the loss of life into a profitable trade by claiming on the ship's insurance for the Africans murdered at sea".
The rest of the book is about this point, particularly about the legal debate brought to court because the insurers denied the owners' claims that their cargo had been necessarily disposed of. The key players in this legal battle were Lord Chief Mansfield and Granville Sharp. The latter (and other abolitionists) campaigned against the crew and the owners of the ship both inside and outside the courts, and tried to bring murder charges against the men involved, while Lord Mansfield, who was considered the father of English commercial law, made comments and a decision which not only entered legal history. The whole affair was brought to public attention on March 6 1782, after the ship's mate, James Kelsall, admitted that he had helped throw the Africans over board, 'by the Captain's order, which he thought was to him a sufficient warrant for doing any possible thing, without considering whether it was criminal or not' '. This report, which made was published by an English news paper, stated that a mass murder had taken place on a Brtish ship and, secondly, the men who committed the killings and the shipowners had not only gotten away with the killings, but had even profited from them by successfully claiming against their insurers.
Professor Walvin used of newly discovered documents and legal transcripts in various archives both in Britain and Jamaica and has written an outstanding, frightening and brilliant book about an episode which was instrumental in opening the eyes of the British public to the realities of the slave ships and the terrible conditions under which those slaves were depoerted and made their way to their respective destinations. To use Walvin's words, " The Zong affair helped spark a seismic shift in public mood". Now slavery was an issue which made its way from the elite to the wider public.
The result of this case and many other similar ones coalesced into a massive public denunciation which caused the slavery issue to be doomed. True, the Act of 1807 did not end the Atlantic slave trade." Nor did it stop Zong-like atrocities against Africans on ships. It was recognized that there were plenty of other Europeans-notably the French, Spanish and Portuguese (to say nothing of Brazilian and Cuban traders)-who were keen to continue slave trading in the Atlantic, whatever the risks". After 1807, 2.8 million Africans were loaded on to Atlantic slave ships, of whom 2.5 Africans survived to landfall in the Americas. Incidents like those which happened with the Zong were to be found in the 1820s and 1830s, because Africans were cargo and not human beings. The irony is that had Gregson not gone to court, the whole story might have never been exposed, not even to legal scrutiny or to the large public. This case helped expose the full complexity and extent of British involvement in the Atlantic slave trade system and was a milestone in ending of this Black Holocaust.