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Zong crew throwing sick slaves overboard, ca. 1781
Zong crew throwing sick slaves overboard, ca. 1781

The Zong Massacre – A Maritime Insurance Scam

PortandTerminal.com, March 16, 2020

The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 130 African slaves by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29 November 1781. They did it to force their insurance company to pay.

LONDON – The slave ship Zong departed the coast of Africa on 6 September 1781 with 470 slaves. Since slaves were such a valuable “commodity” at that time, many captains took on more slaves than their ships could accommodate in order to maximize their profits.  

Which is why the Zong’s captain, Luke Collingwood, overloaded his ship with slaves. By 29 November many of them had begun to die from disease and malnutrition as provisions on board ran low.

Maritime Image of the Day: The Brookes Slave Ship Drawing

Making matters worse, the Zong sailed in an area in the mid-Atlantic known as “the Doldrums” because of periods of little or no wind.  As the ship sat stranded, sickness caused the deaths of seven of the 17 crew members and over 50 slaves.

And this is where the insurance scam comes in. When slaves died a natural death the loss fell on their owners, but if they were thrown overboard, the loss would be covered by insurance.

Zong crew throwing sick slaves overboard, ca. 1781
Zong crew throwing sick slaves overboard, ca. 1781

Increasingly desperate, Collingwood decided to “jettison” some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the shipowners with the opportunity to claim for the loss on their insurance.

Over the next week, the remaining crew members threw 132 slaves who were sick and dying over the side to drown. Another 10 slaves threw themselves overboard in what Collingwood later described as an “Act of Defiance.”

The underwriters were compelled by the courts to pay to the owners £30 for each slave lost.

There were, however, even then some squeamish persons who suggested that the master of the “Zong” should be prosecuted for murder, but this was ridiculed because the “blacks were property”.

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