The Zong in­ci­dent re­vis­ited!

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By

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!

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