Insurance Covered! A look at the Zong Massacre

Professor Trevor Burnard

Director of the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

trevor.burnard@hull.ac.uk

Insurance Covered! offers a series of podcasts on all matters relating to insurance, created and compered by Peter Mansfield, a partner with the law firm RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain). As part of this series Professor Trevor Burnard was invited to discuss the most notorious insurance case in history, Gregson v Gilbert (1783), commonly known as the Zong Massacre. In the podcast Professor Burnard places this case in its Jamaican historical context, explains why the case came about and notes its importance in the burgeoning British abolitionist movement.  A summary of the podcast is provided below.

The Zong massacre, long recognised as a notorious event in insurance history, involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. During November and December 1781, the crew of the ship named the Zong threw more than 120 enslaved captives overboard in order to claim insurance on these ‘losses’. This took place only a month after Britain had lost the American Revolution with the Battle of Yorktown. French ships were at that stage just moving in towards the Caribbean, and it looked like Jamaica would be conquered by the French fleet. At that point, Jamaica, which was Britain’s most valuable and important colony, was in a terrible state. The great majority of Britons were invested in the slave trade and Britain was the greatest slave trading nation in the world.

The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by the Gregson family, Liverpool slave traders, who used this captured ship to transport a very large number of captives to the West Indies, ideally to Kingston, but with only a very small crew. The ship encountered trouble en route, found itself off course and running low on supplies. With not enough water to go round the crew had three choices. The first and the most obvious was to wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or another ship, and to sail for Montego Bay as quickly as possible. The second was to batten down the hatches so the slaves could not escape, accept that some would die from dehydration and disease and then to try and sell as many as they could for whatever price they could get when they got to Montego Bay; that’s what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third, and the one they chose to take, was to throw 54 women and children overboard in order, they claimed later on, to stop an insurrection; this took place on 29th November 1781. A further 42 individuals, all men, were thrown over on 1st December and sometime after 6th December the crew threw over another 26; 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives and a total of 132 deaths.

The Gregsons then put in an insurance claim, citing the action taken to be lawful to prevent insurrection and rebellion, which at the time was a common claim to make. The underwriter however refused to pay out on the claim. This is thought to have been because the actions of the crew made him doubt that this was a legitimate claim – it looked more like a scheme to maximise profits and make up for the poor return on the voyage. The decision was then left to the courts to decide. Initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. There were two key reasons for this: the manner in which a number of captives had thrown themselves off the ship;  and the claim that a lack of water had been the reason for insurrection, when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre. Despite Mansfield’s ruling the story has an unsavoury ending: the Gregsons may not have won their claim but they ultimately got away with 122 murders. The case of the Zong was nevertheless of key importance in helping to kickstart the abolitionist movement.

You can view the podcast via the following links:

Acast

iTunes

Spotify

‘The Slave Ship’ by J. M. W. Turner (1840). In the background, the sun shines through a storm while large waves hit the sides of a sailing ship. In the foreground, enslaved people are drowning in the water, while others are being eaten by large fish. Source: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Africans in Yorkshire

Gifty Burrows

Educator and Project Lead

Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute

g.burrows@hull.ac.uk

To mark her appointment as Honorary Fellow at the Wilberforce Institute, Gifty Burrows, Project Lead, talks about the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire Project.

The history of Black presence in Britain is evident in the sensational rediscovery of human remains among Anglo-Saxon and prehistoric burial sites. However, given that Britain had an empire with subjects in colonies around the world, it is puzzling that many people still have some difficulty in understanding the longevity of Black presence in British society. This is not surprising however, given the paucity of historical research to show that people of African descent have lived, worked and visited Britain for hundreds of years. Instead, there is a persistent myth that Black presence began in the 1950s with the call for workers from its territories, heralded by the arrival of the Empire Windrush ship. Indeed, it is ironic that although Black people are hypervisible as a minority group in society, they are rendered invisible in terms of their narratives and their achievements too are diminished.

There is very little representation of Black people as individuals in fiction or nonfiction. Stories of their direct experience in historical narratives are rare and when they appear, they are often written by a second hand who has the power to edit their truth. It is also the case that despite Black people being the global majority, any aspect of history about them is consigned to a label of ‘Black history’, separating them from the main discourse and preventing them from influencing a long-established view of traditional beliefs. This can leave voids where context is omitted, and what is left is a truncated and incomplete picture. In 2015, African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was created to rebalance this absence at a local level and bring the hidden stories of remarkable everyday lives to the fore as a reflection of an honest and inclusive view of British social history.

The project

The strength of African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire was that this type of study had not been done before. It gained support from the Heritage Lottery Fund with a remit of looking at the presence and contributions of people of African descent from the Wilberforce era of 1750 up until 2007.  It was bold and challenging to look at a region that has never been demographically diverse.

Stories were difficult to unearth. A disheartening parallel between the past and the present (that quickly became apparent) is that race is often only deemed important in criminality. Therefore, for the majority of ordinary people for whom that was not relevant, careful survey and meticulous research of local and national archives was needed to yield results. The emergence of themes such as maritime, religion, education, service members, judiciary, occupations, sports, activism and the arts demonstrated a broad Black presence in Hull and East Yorkshire. The outcome was helped by the project’s design, inspiring energy and contributions from a broad sweep of people from various backgrounds.

The project was further bolstered by a number of families who directly asked for their histories to be included as a celebration and acknowledgement of their presence in this region. This, together with the Contemporary Voices oral history series, represented over two hundred stories, providing an archive on the website that remains in the public domain.

Legacy

The African Stories project has been hugely successful. The unearthed material had the potential to expand further by the end of the funded period, and the level of interest has remained very high. To maintain the integrity of the project, requests to expand its scope were rejected as well as stories with insufficient proof of presence. That said, for people who wish to research the stories further, accurate references and signposts have been included in all entries so there is a factual base to work from.

The reception of the project outcomes has engaged and surprised many. It has fed into media broadcasts, online articles and six exhibitions, as well as inspiring similar research by other local historians and academics. This demonstrates an appetite for an inclusive history that would be more reflective of modern society and address an absence in national education.

The continued interest in the African Stories archive shows that the passion for local history does not stay local. Rather, it feeds into the social history of the nation itself. The stories provide an insight into historic and contemporary life experiences with aspects that will resonate. Indeed, if it is the case that the value of research is in its relevance and impact on society, then it can be said that African Stories has been successful by having started a much needed conversation about Black presence – particularly in light of the current discourse about Black lives and as we continue halfway into the UN International Decade for People of African Descent

For the African Stories website go to: https://www.africansinyorkshireproject.com/

For a virtual library focusing on Africa and the African diaspora go to: https://www.theafricanist.co.uk/

Exhibiting the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire