29 November: On this day in history
What events happened on 29 November in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…
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.