Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the notorious events off Jamaica in 1781 and their background. The British slave ship Zong, having sailed across the Atlantic towards Jamaica, threw 132 enslaved Africans from its human cargo into the sea to drown. Even for a slave ship, the Zong was overcrowded; those murdered were worth more to the ship dead than alive. The crew said there was not enough drinking water to go round and they had no choice, which meant they could claim for the deaths on insurance. The main reason we know of this atrocity now is that the owners took their claim to court in London, and the insurers were at first told to pay up as if the dead slaves were any other lost goods, not people. Abolitionists in Britain were scandalised: if courts treated mass murder in the slave trade as just another business transaction and not a moral wrong, the souls of the nation would be damned. But nobody was ever prosecuted.
The image above is of sailors throwing slaves overboard, from Torrey's 'American Slave Trade', 1822
Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University
Class of 1973 Lecturer in History and Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge
Jake Subryan Richards
Assistant Professor of History at the London School of Economics
Studio production: Hannah Sander
Producer: Simon Tillotson