Introduction | Somerset Case | The Zong Case  | Abolishing the Slave Trade | Ending Slavery | "Time of the Ancient Mariner | Blake's Plates for Stedman | "To Toussaint L'Ouverture"

The Zong Case

SlaveshipJ.M.W. Turner's Slave Ship (1840). The picture shows a ship caught in a storm, which has evidently thrown a large number of slaves overboard. The slaves can be seen in the water in the foreground. The scene is representative of common practices on slave ships, particularly as having been practiced by the slave ship Zong.
The trial of Gregson v Gilbert (or, the Zong Case) is a noteworthy case because it exemplified the horrors of the slave trade, and was paid attention to by Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano. While the Zong, a slave-ship, was en route from West Africa to Jamaica with a cargo of slaves, Captain Luke Collingwood worried that the ship was running out of supplies. The ship had already encountered disease, and so as to save supplies and attempt to slow the spread of pestilence, Cullingwood decided to drown a large number of slaves. A total of 121 slaves were thrown overboard in three days, many of whom were perceived to be sick and dying, and an additional 10 committed suicide, thinking they would be killed next.

When the Zong case was put to trial in 1783, it was over insurance claims, and Lord Mansfield presided. The case got its name because "Gregson, the shipowners, were claiming for the loss of their slaves (£30 each) from their underwriters (Gilbert). The latter refused to pay, and thus the case was a simple matter of maritime insurance" (Walvin 16). Despite efforts by Granville Sharp to bring murder charges into the trial, the case continued to recognize the slaves only as chattel property. Eventually, Mansfield would say he "had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard" (Walvin 17).

The Zong case served in part to further illustrate to the people of England the legal definition of slaves as chattel property. For Lord Mansfield, his final decision in the case left no doubt that he had not freed all slaves through his ruling in the Somerset Case.

John Stromski

Select Bibliography

Lee, Debbie. "British Slavery and African Exploration: The Written Legacy." Slavery and the Romantic Imagination.
     Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002. Print.

Walvin, James. "Murdering Men." Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers,
     2001. Print.