On the 29th November 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong threw the first of at least 132 African slaves overboard in a massacre intended to allow them to cash in their insurance policy. When the insurers refused to pay, the ensuing court cases found that the killing of slaves was legal in some cases. At the time the massacre and the subsequent legal rulers had little impact, but within just a few years it became a central example of the horrors of the Middle Passage and stimulated the abolitionist movement that expanded in the years following.
The Zong was originally a Dutch slave ship that was captured by a British gunship in February 1781. Having been sold to a syndicate of Liverpool merchants, it departed from Accra in modern day Ghana on the 18th August. 442 slaves were on board the ship at this point – more than twice the number that it was capable of safely transporting.
By the third week of November drinkable water was running low, but the problem was not identified until after a navigational error meant the ship had sailed 300 miles past its destination of Jamaica. With death from thirst a high likelihood, the ship’s crew voted purposefully drown some of the slaves in order to ensure the survival of the ones remaining on board.
The massacre began on the 29th November and continued for two more days. Due to deaths from disease and malnutrition, in addition to the wilful mass murder, the ship arrived at Jamaica with only 208 of its original 442 enslaved people on board.