The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery

Madge Dresser applauds an insightful study of a slave ship atrocity and its aftermath


Reviewed by: Madge Dresser
Author: James Walvin
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £18.99


Morally dubious insurance claims for lost cargo at sea were not unknown in Georgian Britain. But by any standard, the one put forward in 1783 by Liverpool merchants regarding their ship the Zong was exceptional.

For the Zong was a slave ship, the lost ‘cargo’ was human, and the 132 enslaved Africans claimed for had been brutally murdered in order to save on dwindling water supplies when the Zong overshot its Jamaican destination.

Though the Zong became a cause célèbre in antislavery circles, its full story has until now remained relatively unexplored. James Walvin’s new book addresses some unanswered questions about the atrocity and its aftermath. A world authority on transatlantic slavery, Walvin produces an authoritative, fair-minded and grippingly readable account of a case whose legacy is, as he shows, with us still today.

The fate of the murdered was at first virtually ignored in the scramble to claim compensation for lost property. The rights of private property so crucial to English law and so rightly seen as a bulwark against state tyranny clashed titan-like against the cherished liberties of the free-born Englishman, liberties which are at the core of modern human rights principles.

When the full implications of what was, to all intents and purposes, mass murder became inescapably evident, what happened on the Zong was then presented as a tussle between ‘humanity’ and ‘necessity’ – the assumption being that the survival of the white crew took precedence over any humanitarian concern for the Africans aboard.

As Walvin points out, this was a precept that was implicitly the case for all slaving voyages.

Walvin’s account pieces together with forensic precision what is known and unknowable about the killings aboard the Zong. He sets the case in its wider legal context, in a way which cuts through the complexity without ignoring it.

The question of who was actually responsible for instructing the murders to take place sets the scene for an intriguing piece of detective work about the role of Zong’s mysterious passenger, and chief witness, Robert Stubbs.

Walvin’s analysis of the character and career of the Zong’s chief owner, Liverpool merchant William Gregson, fairly acknowledges Gregson’s entrepreneurial flair alongside his enduring brutality. And his comparative depictions of passionate whistleblower Granville Sharp and the punctiliously cautious Lord Chief Justice Mansfield are particularly compelling.

Walvin wears his learning lightly. Yet his insights – gleaned from an impressively wide variety of sources – his thoughtful meditations on the nature of evidence, and his insistence on foregrounding the contributions of black writers and scholars, make this attractively produced volume a most welcome contribution to the field. 

Madge Dresser is a reader in history at the University of the West of England

See also…


Q&A: Whose idea was it in the first place to enslave Africans and make them work in the Americas?