Insurance fraud on the good ship zong, 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.

Insurance Fraud on the Good Ship ZongZong 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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The Zong Massacre (1781)

Insurance Fraud on the Good Ship Zong Zong crew throwing sick slaves overboard, ca. 1781

The slave ship Zong departed the coast of Africa on 6 September 1781 with 470 slaves. Since this human chattel was such a valuable commodity at that time, many captains took on more slaves than their ships could accommodate in order to maximize profits.  The Zong’s captain, Luke Collingwood, overloaded his ship with slaves and by 29 November many of them had begun to die from disease and malnutrition. The Zong then 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.

Increasingly desperate, Collingwood decided to “jettison” some of the cargo in order to save the ship and provide the ship owners 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.

Another 10 slaves threw themselves overboard in what Collingwood later described as an “Act of Defiance.”

Upon the Zong’s arrival in Jamaica, James Gregson, the ship’s owner, filed an insurance claim for their loss. Gregson argued that the Zong did not have enough water to sustain both crew and the human commodities.

The insurance underwriter, Thomas Gilbert, disputed the claim citing that the Zong had 420 gallons of water aboard when she was inventoried in Jamaica. Despite this the Jamaican court in 1782 found in favour of the owners.

The insurers appealed the case in 1783 and in the process provoked a great deal of public interest and the attention of Great Britain‘s abolitionists.

  The leading abolitionist at the time, Granville Sharp, used the deaths of the slaves to increase public awareness about the slave trade and further the anti-slavery cause.  It was he who first used the word massacre.

Publicity surrounding the Zong Massacre and the first case led William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield and the Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, the highest court in Great Britain, to order a second trial.  Mansfield presided and ruled in favour of the insurers. He also held that the cargo had been poorly managed as the captain should have made a suitable allowance of water for each slave.

Sharp attempted to have criminal charges brought against the Captain, crew, and the owners but was unsuccessful.

Great Britain’s The Solicitor General, Justice John Lee, however, refused to take up the criminal charges claiming “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods.

Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder… The case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

Although those who were responsible for the Zong massacre were never brought to justice, the event itself increased the profile of abolitionists such as Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano and brought new converts including Thomas Clarkson and Reverend John Ramsay.  They in turn inspired the actions of William Wilberforce who led the successful campaign to have Parliament abolish slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.

Do you find this information helpful? A small donation would help us keep this accessible to all. Forego a bottle of soda and donate its cost to us for the information you just learned, and feel good about helping to make it available to everyone! Bernard, I. (2011, October 11) The Zong Massacre (1781). Retrieved from

National Maritime Museum (Ref: REC/19), Grayson v Gilbert 1783; James
Walvin, The Zong A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery (New Haven:
Yale University Press, 2011); Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of
the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870
(New York: Simon & Schuster,

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Insurance Fraud on the Good Ship Zong

Captain Luke Collingwood was used to grim voyages across the Atlantic, but this one had been worse than most.

Dysentery, diarrhea, and smallpox had already claimed the lives of seven of the crew aboard the Zong. The slave cargo had suffered a far higher mortality rate. More than sixty had died since leaving the shores of Africa.

As Captain Collingwood searched in vain for the coast of Jamaica, he grew increasingly alarmed. He knew that the ship’s insurers would not cover the cost of his lost human cargo. Since each slave was worth about £30, he stood to lose a fortune.

A Sinister Plot

On November 29, 1781, he was struck by a macabre idea, one that could turn loss into profit. At a meeting with the Zong’s officers, he suggested that they throw the slaves overboard. There was a sinister logic to his reasoning. If his slaves died of illness, their insurance value was lost.

But if they were thrown overboard in order to preserve the ship’s scant supply of water (and thereby save the lives of others), an insurance claim would be valid under a legal principle known as the ‘general average,' It allowed the captain of a ship to sacrifice some of his ‘passengers’ in order to save others.

Collingwood went below decks to select his first ‘parcel’ of victims. He decided to concentrate on the women and children, probably because he knew that they would put up less of a struggle. A total of fifty-four were hurled off the ship and could be seen flailing in the sea before eventually weakening and drowning.

Two days later, on December 1st, Collingwood elected to throw out another ‘parcel:' this time, his forty-two victims were all men. They drowned so quickly, and with such little effort on the part of the captain and his crew, that Collingwood decided to pitch even more slaves overboard. He ordered another thirty-six to be thrown into the ocean.

But this third batch of victims were made of stronger stuff and vehemently refused to go to their deaths without a struggle. Collingwood’s men were forced to chain them by the ankle and weigh their feet with balls of iron so they would sink immediately.

A Turn of Fortune

Three weeks after the last murders, the Zong finally reached Jamaica with 208 slaves still aboard. They sold for an average price of £36 each, earning Collingwood a substantial profit even before he made his insurance claim. But he did not have long to enjoy his money: he died within three days of making landfall.

The ship’s owners expressed their full support for what the late Captain Collingwood had done and filed an insurance claim for the 132 slaves that had been thrown overboard. They hoped to recuperate nearly £4,000 in jettisoned ‘cargo.'

Thus began a court case that was marked by callousness, cynicism and sheer human greed. The jury were in agreement with the owners and insisted that the insurers pay up the money for the drowned slaves. But the insurers appealed against the decision and asked for the case to be retried. This time, it was to be heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.

Did Lord Mansfield condemn Captain Collingwood’s horrific act?   

To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our new podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, c

Zong massacre

Zong massacreThe Slave Ship (1840) J. M. W. Turner's representation of the mass killing of slaves, inspired by the Zong killings[1]Date29 November 1781VictimsAfrican slavesPerpetratorsBritish slavers

The Zong massacre was the mass killing of more than 130 Africans, who were kidnapped or sold for Slavery] by the crew of the British slave ship Zong on and in the days following 29 November 1781.[a] The Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, owned the ship and sailed her in the Atlantic slave trade. As was common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. According to the crew, when the ship ran low on drinking water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea.

After the slave ship reached port at Black River, Jamaica, Zong's owners made a claim to their insurers for the loss of the slaves. When the insurers refused to pay, the resulting court cases (Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug.

KB 232) held that in some circumstances, the deliberate killing of slaves was legal and that insurers could be required to pay for the slaves' deaths.

The jury found for the slavers, but at a subsequent appeal hearing the judges, led by Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, ruled against the syndicate owners, due to new evidence that suggested the captain and crew were at fault.

Following the first trial, freed slave Olaudah Equiano brought news of the massacre to the attention of the anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, who worked unsuccessfully to have the ship's crew prosecuted for murder.

Because of the legal dispute, reports of the massacre received increased publicity, stimulating the abolitionist movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; the Zong events were increasingly cited as a powerful symbol of the horrors of the Middle Passage of slaves to the New World.[2]

The non-denominational Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in 1787. The next year Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act 1788, its first law regulating the slave trade, to limit the number of slaves per ship.

Then, in 1791, Parliament prohibited insurance companies from reimbursing ship owners when slaves were thrown overboard. The massacre has also inspired works of art and literature.

It was remembered in London in 2007, among events to mark the bicentenary of the British Slave Trade Act 1807, which abolished British participation in the African slave trade, though not slavery itself. A monument to the murdered slaves on Zong was installed at Black River, Jamaica.

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Zong was originally named Zorg (meaning “Care” in Dutch) by its owners, the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie. It operated as a slave ship based in Middelburg, Netherlands, and made a voyage in 1777, delivering slaves to the coast of Suriname, South America.[3] Zong was a “square stern ship” of 110 tons burthen.[4] The British 16-gun brig HMS Alert captured her on 10 February 1781. On 26 February, Alert and Zong arrived at Cape Coast Castle, in what is present-day Ghana. Cape Coast Castle was maintained and staffed, along with other forts and castles, by the Royal African Company (RAC),[5] which used the Castle as its regional headquarters.[6]

In early March 1781, the master of William purchased Zong on behalf of a syndicate of Liverpool merchants.[7] The members of the syndicate were: Edward Wilson, George Case, James Aspinall and William, James, and John Gregson.

[8] William Gregson had an interest in 50 slaving voyages between 1747 and 1780; he also served as mayor of Liverpool in 1762.

[9] By the end of his life, vessels in which Gregson had a financial stake had carried 58,000 Africans to slavery in the Americas.[10]

Zong was paid for with bills of exchange, and the 244 slaves already on board were part of the transaction.[7] The ship was not insured until after it started its voyage.[11] The insurers, a syndicate from Liverpool, underwrote the ship and slaves for up to £8,000, approximately half the slaves' potential market value. The remaining risk was borne by the owners.[11][12]


Zong was the first command of Luke Collingwood, formerly the surgeon on the William

A New Look at the Zong Case of 1783

1Only one slave ship in the Transatlantic Slave Trade Data Base goes by the name of the Zong. This one ship, however, is probably the most notorious of all the slave ships that crossed the Atlantic in the long period of the transatlantic slave trade.

It is famous because of events that happened on the ship in late November and early December 1781 – the deliberate murder through throwing overboard of African captives in order to later claim insurance on these captives as lost cargo – that became the subject of an infamous court case in 1783.

1 The abolitionist Granville Sharp tirelessly promulgated to a shocked public both the callous conduct of the crew of the Zong in murdering, on three separate occasions, 122 Africans and also the even more shocking ways in which the British legal system treated a case of what abolitionists thought was mass murder as a routine, if legally complicated, case of maritime fraud.2

2The Zong was an unlucky ship on an unlucky voyage. It had an inexperienced captain – Luke Collingwood, a surgeon by trade who had never commanded a slave vessel.

It also had a small and quarrelsome crew, who were at loggerheads with each other by the time that the Zong had reached the Caribbean after an unusually long Atlantic crossing. First, after leaving St.

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Kitts in mid-November 1781 the crew discovered that their water barrels were leaking, meaning that water supplies became short by the time that the ship neared Jamaica (though no sailor or captive was put on short allowance).

Second, someone made the disastrous decision of mistaking the western end of Jamaica for Cape Tiburon in eastern Saint-Domingue. This navigational error meant that by 29 November 1781 the Zong was hopelessly off-course, becalmed somewhere off the south-west of Jamaica, far away from its intended landing point of Kingston.3

3Adrift, with water running low and fearing slave insurrection the crew consulted and decided to force overboard African captives to preserve water for survivors.

They killed the Africans in three batches – 54 were killed on 29 November; 42 were murdered on 1 December, and sometime in early December (and after rain had fallen, making the problem of dwindling water supplies less acute) a further 26 were thrown overboard. On the final occasion, ten slaves leapt into the sea, committing suicide rather than being murdered.

The Zong finally arrived in Black River, southwest Jamaica, on 22 December 1781, where it sold its remaining 208 slaves (Walvin 99).

The ship (renamed the Richard) returned to England on 26 October 1782 and the owners, the Gregson syndicate, claimed the losses of the murdered slaves at £30 per head, under an insurance contract that covered the death of slaves aboard slavers due to “the perils of the sea” and which was based upon the average cost of the surviving 208 Africans sold into slavery at Black River in January 1782 (Oldham; Armstrong; Lobban).

4The Zong case became a pivotal moment in the development of a humanitarian sensibility (Brown ch.5; Blackburn ch. 4; Oldfield ch.1). Lord Mansfield made a notorious comment adjudicating in the case when it came before the Court of King’s Bench on 22 May 1783. He stated that “The Matter left to the Jury was, whether [the mass murder arose] […

] from necessity [,] for they had no doubt (tho’ it shocks one very much) the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board.

” His further comment that insurers had to pay up for dead slaves killed in an insurrection “just as if Horses were kill’d” but that insurers did not have to pay up for slaves dying naturally just as “you don’t have to pay for horses that die a natural death” caused consternation (Sharp Transcript 1-3, 20-21).

Initially, the owners’ request for financial relief was granted and they received £3,660. The insurers appealed; Mansfield agreed with the insurers and ordered a new trial, which does not seem to have taken place, meaning that the owners of the Richard, previously the Zong, did not get their money.

5The crux of the plaintiffs’ case was that the crew was under the “necessity” of throwing slaves overboard because they faced an imminent insurrection from water-deprived captives realizing they were facing a slow and painful death.

The argument that the counsel for the plaintiffs made was curious, because, mimicking the “valued policy” at the heart of the dispute, it argued that actions were taken to prevent a future event rather than in response to an event that had already happened. There was no insurrection on the Zong.

But the crew were convinced that if they had not acted on 29 November an insurrection would have occurred. Killing 54 women and children by jettisoning them as cargo saved the crew and the rest of the slaves on ship from imminent destruction.

Both James Kelsall and Robert Stubbs, the only eye-witness testimony that exists concerning the decision-making process on the night of 29 November, were insistent on this point. Stubbs supported Collingwood’s decision to murder Africans because “according to his Judgement the Captn did what was right.

[…] [There was] an absolute Necessity for throwing over the Negroes.” Kelsall claimed he objected at first but soon came around.

6Mansfield and Buller, the presiding judges in 1783, did not make much of the question of insurrection on board the Zong. In retrospect, it is surprising that they did not interrogate counsel further on this matter.

Of cases dealing with slave insurrection that came before the British courts in the late eighteenth century, it was only in Gregson v. Gilbert that the insurrection under discussion was imaginary, not real. In Jones v.

Schmoll (1785), the underwriters were forced to pay the insurance on 19 slaves who had been killed in what the plaintiffs called “a mutiny.” In Rohl v. Parr (1796), the underwriters agreed to compensate the owners “by general average” for all slaves lost from insurrection amounting to more than five percent of the slave cargo.

The crew on the slave ship Zumbee killed seven of 49 slaves in putting down an insurrection off Cape Coast in West Africa. As this was more than five percent of the slave cargo, the judges on King’s Bench found in favor of the owners of the ship and against the underwriters (Oldham 305, 309-10).

But it was made clear in court in 1783 that the Zong suffered no insurrection. Solicitor General John Lee, acting for the Gregsons, argued that by throwing the slaves overboard the crew avoided the greater evil, for otherwise “in a few hours there must have been such an Insurrection all the blacks wou’d have killed all the Whites.

” Counsel for the defendants, Mr. Davenport demurred. Lee replied by quoting testimony from Stubbs. Davenport continued, however, insisting that there had been no insurrection. Lee agreed, noting that he did not say that there was an insurrection, merely that there might have been one if preventive action had not been taken (Sharp Transcript 50-52).

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