29 November 1781: British sailors throw 142 slaves overboard
A ruthless insurance scam causes widespread horror in Britain
On 29 November 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong made a genuinely fatal decision. Three months earlier, their ship, owned by a syndicate of Liverpool merchants, had left Accra with some 442 African slaves, at least twice the number that was common on a ship of that size.
But as it ploughed across the Atlantic, things began to go wrong. The ship’s captain, Luke Collingwood, was taken seriously ill, his officers quarrelled among themselves, and as a result, the Zong failed to make a stop at Tobago to take on more drinking water.
- Read more about the Zong Massacre
By 29 November, the situation was desperate. The ship had overshot Jamaica, and water supplies were running low. Collingwood proposed a chillingly ruthless idea. If the slaves died of illness, the ship’s insurers would not cover them. But if they drowned, the insurers would have to pay up. It would, he said, be “less cruel to throw the sick wretches into the sea than to suffer them to linger out a few days, under the disorder with which they were afflicted”. And so, in the next few days, he and his men threw about 142 slaves overboard, many of them women and children. According to some accounts, of this number 10 threw themselves overboard.
The ensuing legal dispute horrified public opinion. The Liverpool syndicate demanded compensation; the insurers, however, refused to pay, and eventually won their case. Nobody, however, was ever prosecuted for the massacre, and the Zong became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement.
As late as 1840, it inspired JMW Turner’s painting The Slave Ship – a magnificent work of art, which hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts – but also a terrible reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
29 November 1330
Roger Mortimer, lover of Queen Isabella and de facto ruler of England, was hanged at Tyburn after being seized in a coup led by Isabella’s son, the young Edward III.
29 November 1779
MPs Charles James Fox and William Adam fought a duel in Hyde Park after Fox ridiculed Adam for supporting the government. Fox was slightly wounded.
29 November 1908
Death of educationalist Julia Huxley. Born 1862, the granddaughter of Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School, she earned a first-class degree in English literature from Somerville College, Oxford. In 1902 she founded Prior’s Field, an experimental girls school near Godalming and acted as its headmistress until her early death. She was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold, sister of novelist Mrs Humphry Ward and mother of zoologist and philosopher Julian Huxley and writer Aldous Huxley. As a child she had been one of the favourite photographic models of Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).
29 November 1947
United Nations General Assembly votes to partition Palestine.