(Published in Grail World 71/2012)
People were thrown overboard so that shipping insurance could pay for “lost cargo”: a particularly daunting example of what was legally possible in the era of the slave trade.
In 1781 the British slave ship was Zong en route from West Africa to the Caribbean. Your captain Luke Collingwood (c. 1733–1783) made only his second voyage on a slave ship, and it was his first voyage under his own command. The crew didn't have much experience either. The ship was overloaded with 470 slaves, the food for the slaves was insufficient, and the journey to Jamaica took a long time - due to clumsy navigation and adverse winds or calm in the dreaded "doldrums"[i]. Here the ship lay in a doldrums for a long time and the provisions for the slaves were running out.
Then another epidemic broke out that quickly killed seventeen crew members and some sixty malnourished black slaves. It became apparent that this voyage would turn into a financial catastrophe for the slave traders. “Good advice” was expensive.
133 sick slaves were thrown overboard
For the captain there was an additional calculation that was obviously more important than moral concerns: If the slaves died during the sea transport, the entrepreneurs could claim the transport insurance; but if the slaves only died on land, the insurance would not pay.
In order to save his clients as much as possible of the capital invested, the captain decided to take a rigorous measure: within three days - from November 29th to December 1st, 1781 - he released 133 sick or dying slaves in the middle of the Atlantic Throw board! So these slaves were considered "lost cargo" for which the insurance would have to pay! Another ten slaves jumped overboard in desperation.
£ 30 in damages for each slave dead
When the ship finally arrived in Jamaica, the shipowners asked their insurance company to pay £ 30 in damages for each of the lost slaves.
No one was held accountable for the willful killing of 133 slaves. A murder charge against the captain Collingwood failed. At the time, the killing of slaves - individually or en masse - was not legally considered murder. According to the written laws of the time, the actions of the captain and his crew were not punishable.
The insurance company refused to pay for the deliberately thrown overboard slaves. So it came to a court case for damages. In the first instance in Jamaica, the shipowners won. The court there took the position that blacks were “goods and property” and should be treated in the same way as if horses had been thrown overboard.
The claim for damages went to the second instance in London. Here the crew was blamed for poor management and poor treatment of the slaves, and the shipowners were left empty-handed.
“Loads of slaves” accompanied by pastors
In the times of the Enlightenment, the human rights declarations of the USA (1776) and the French Revolution (1789) it became more and more difficult to justify slavery. Not to mention Christian ethics, which, however, have been interpreted very differently.
Since the beginning of the modern slave trade in the 16th century, the European slave traders had presented themselves as Christians by having their “loads” accompanied by a pastor. This mixing of Christianity and the slave trade was no longer acceptable in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. (6).
Demands of the "abolitionists"[ii]that called for the abolition of slavery gained increasing weight.
It wasn't until 1863 that slavery ended in the United States
The court hearings surrounding the Zong case initially received little attention until representatives of the anti-slavery movement, the human rights activists of that time, accepted the case and branded the atrocities of slavery in publications using this example.
The subject of slavery was discussed again and again in the English parliament, but the slave traders and slave owners were able to assert their commercial interests for a long time. Lists of 30,000 signatures calling for the abolition of the slave trade were even presented to the British Parliament. Initially in vain.
It was not until 1807 that Parliament in London passed a ban on slave laborTrade, not yet slavery as such. This was not completely abolished in Great Britain and its colonies until 1833. The owners of slaves were compensated; but not all. Because the compensation was tied to conditions that not every slave owner could meet. For example, the Boers in South Africa received nothing.
France banned slavery in its colonies in 1848, and the US did not end slavery in its southern states until 1863, in the middle of the civil war. Brazil followed as the last country in the western world in 1888. -
Read also in "Short, concise, curious" on page 285 "Slave robbery in the Mediterranean", on page 341 "An eternal, inevitable institution" on page 355 "A breach of law that was right" and on page 446 "Slavery ended, racism remained" with further references to the topic.
Gonick Larry, The Cartoon History of the Modern World Part II, Harper, New York 2000.
The Zong Massacre: