Slave Ship Disaster

2007 marked the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, an anniversary celebrated with government programs as a great turning point in the history of the nation. Yet across the Atlantic, in the Jamaican parish of St. Elizabeth, a bicentennial of an entirely different kind was commemorated: the 226th anniversary of the arrival of a slave ship called the Zong on Jamaica’s shore.

While the British celebrated the joyful occasion of moral prerogatives triumphing over “a business of organized brutality,” in Jamaica, a memorial was erected to the 132 slaves who were thrown overboard into the frigid waters of the Atlantic by the crew of the Zong, which departed Liverpool twenty-six years before abolition. Their story is a horrifying one, which ultimately “came to represent the depravity and heartless violence of the entire slave system.”

In The Zong: A Massacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery, historian James Walvin presents the tale of the Africans aboard the ship and the crewmembers who literally got away with murder, massacring one third of their human cargo in the face of concerns about water supplies lasting for the remainder of the voyage. Walvin describes how, at the time, the atrocities that took place on the Zong might have gone unnoticed were it not for the trial over the insurance monies the ship owners attempted to claim on their lost “property,” and goes on to trace how newspaper coverage of this trial turned the ship into a touchstone for the abolition movement, a symbol of the very worst qualities of the slave trade.

In this way, Walvin demonstrates the connection between the two bicentenaries, for the prominence of the Zong as an illustration of the appalling realities of the buying and selling of human beings drove the ultimate renunciation of slavery in the British Isles. Still, the author reminds us, this happy outcome cannot begin to compensate for the loss of 132 human lives that took place on December 1, 1781—and the millions of other tragedies that the slave trade wrought over the decades its ships traveled across Atlantic waters.

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