Out this Month: ‘The Zong’ examines a horrifying and pivotal event in the history of the slave trade

In 1781, the captain of a British ship running short of drinking water ordered 132 African slaves thrown overboard. The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery by James Walvin (out this month) is the first full account of the horrifying event, the later trial, and the moral and political debates that followed.

On November 29, 1781, Captain Collingwood of the British ship Zong commanded his crew to throw overboard one-third of his cargo: a shipment of Africans bound for slavery in America. The captain believed his ship was off course, and he feared there was not enough drinking water to last until landfall. The Zong is the first book to examine in detail the deplorable killings on the ship, the lawsuit that ensued, how the murder of 132 slaves affected debates about slavery, and the way we remember the infamous Zong today.

James Walvin is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of York, and a world expert on transatlantic slavery. He has published over thirty books, including Black Ivory, the seminal account of the British slave trade. Here Walvin explores all aspects of the Zong’s voyage and the subsequent trial – a case brought to court not for the murder of the slaves but as a suit against the insurers who denied the owners’ claim that their ‘cargo’ had been necessarily jettisoned. The scandalous case prompted wide debate and fueled Britain’s awakening abolition movement. Without the episode of the Zong, Walvin contends, the process of ending the slave trade would have taken an entirely different moral and political trajectory. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of how the case of the Zong, though unique in the history of slave ships, has come to be understood as typical of life on all such ships.

The route taken by the Zong, 18 August–22 December 1781.

The route taken by the Zong, 18 August–22 December 1781.

Timeline for major events in the history of American/British slavery

1783: The Zong Incident. One hundred and thirty-three slaves thrown overboard for insurance claims. Brought to court through the efforts of Olaudah Equiano. Marks the strong beginning to the abolitionist movement in England.
1789: Olaudah Equiano publishes The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano
1793: The Fugitive Slave Act. Any escaped slave in the North may be caught and returned to the South. Wide-open for abuse by slave catchers.
1798: A coalition of slaves under the leadership of Toussaint l’Ouverture defeats and drives the British out of Haiti. Haiti effectively becomes the first American non-slave State.
1833: The Bill for the Abolition of Slavery in England is passed. In the US the American Anti-Slavery Society is founded.
1839: The Amistad revolt. Sengbe tribesmen take over the Amistad ship but can’t navigate it. They drift down the American coast until picked up almost dead.
1850: The Compromise. Trying to fix the weakness of the Fugitive Slave Act (1793) and to avoid civil war, the North of the US agrees to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin is published
1861: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
1861-1865: The US Civil War
1863: The Emancipation Proclamation

Slavery Remembrance Day – 23 August

Like many shipping cities in the UK, Liverpool was an important city for the slave trade, and it is from here that The Zong departed for Jamaica on 6 September 1781.

The city is now home to the International Slavery Museum, which will be commemorating Slavery Remembrance Day on 22-23 August. This year’s events include the memorial lecture from Dr Maulana Karenga, a Walk of Remembrance through the city centre, a traditional libation ceremony and an African-centred panel discussion.  23 August is a significant date as it commemorates an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) in 1791. The date has been designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day, a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.

The Zong is available this month from Yale University Press.

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