The Zong incident revisited!
IMichael A. Dingwall saw the Jamaica Observer editorial cartoon on July 28, depicting a man representing Great Britain hiding behind a cross labelled “Zong slave ship tragedy” and another man representing a Jamaican cursing the British man for hiding from his responsibilities to pay reparations. While the cartoonist is very much within his right to his opinion, the impression portrayed by the cartoon—that the occurrence was a massacre—is wrong.
First, I must say that it was indeed horrible that the captain of the slave ship, The Zong, saw the need to dump his cargo of slaves into the sea in 1781. However, the “tragedy” portrayed wasn’t seen as such when it occurred. We must always remember, when we look at historical events, that the context must be understood.
For people to be killed like that today would be seen as egregious and immoral; however, the world of the 1780s was very different from our own today. Slavery was not an immoral institution back then, and it certainly was not a crime.
I must make clear that I am not holding any brief for the captain of The Zong. However, when her captain decided to dispose of his slave cargo he did not take the decision lightly. The captain, a Mr. Collingwood, wanted to make as much money as possible from The Zong. The more slaves he carried, the more money he would make. So his ship was packed with over 440 slaves. But luck was not on his side. By mid-November, when the ship reached the mid-Atlantic, the winds had deserted him and The Zong was stalling. By the end of the month, sixty slaves and seven crew were already dead. In addition to this, more were becoming sick. Collingwood realised that by the time he reached the Caribbean more would be dead. Dead slaves were of no use to this trader; he had to do something.
To Collingwood, the slaves were cargo, not human beings; if the slaves were “lost at sea” he could collect the insurance. He dumped over 130 slaves into the sea. Alas, Collingwood died three days after his ship arrived in Jamaica, probably from the fever that he was suffering from while on board The Zong.
Anyway, after the insurance company investigated the incident it refused to pay the ship’s owner for his “lost” cargo. It is interesting to note that the ship’s owner and the crew were never charged with murder, but with attempting to defraud the insurance company. It may seem harsh and inhumane today, but that was morality then.
The point I am hoping to make here is that, as harsh as it may sound, the British really don’t have much to apologise for. Looking at what happened with The Zong in its correct historical context, it is clear that while the incident was most certainly unfortunate, it was not inhumane!