On November 29, 1781, Captain Collingwood of the British ship Zong commanded his crew to throw overboard one-third of his cargo: a shipment of Africans bound for slavery in America. The captain believed his ship was off course, and he feared there was not enough drinking water to last until landfall. This book is the first to examine in detail the deplorable killings on the Zong, the lawsuit that ensued, how the murder of 132 slaves affected debates about slavery, and the way we remember the infamous Zongtoday.Historian James Walvin explores all aspects of the Zong’s voyage and the subsequent trial—a case brought to court not for the murder of the slaves but as a suit against the insurers who denied the owners’ claim that their “cargo” had been necessarily jettisoned. The scandalous case prompted wide debate and fueled Britain’s awakening abolition movement. Without the episode of the Zong, Walvin contends, the process of ending the slave trade would have taken an entirely different moral and political trajectory. He concludes with a fascinating discussion of how the case of the Zong, though unique in the history of slave ships, has come to be understood as typical of life on all such ships.
Posted at History in Focus, a 14 volume journal published by the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. [On the main page, the link to the issue on slavery is broken. Access it here.]
This year’s commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the passage of the British Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade have tended to focus on those exceptional individuals who led movements against the trade and against slavery itself. (1) For some, those individuals have been located primarily in Britain: people like Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and – finally being given his due in recent years – Olaudah Equiano. Others have countered that it is more appropriate to examine the frequently revolutionary actions of enslaved people themselves, whose ‘200 Years’ War’ against slavery, as Barbadian historian Hilary Beckles describes it, ultimately increased the economic and political costs of that system to the point where it could no longer be sustained. (2) On both sides, the emphasis has largely been on men, despite some efforts to include a token woman or two: a Hannah More here, a Nanny or a Mary Prince there. This concentration on men is almost inevitable when historical narrative becomes a search for heroic leaders, for the social conventions of most societies have tended to limit women’s capacity to become prominent leaders.
Yet this attention to the exceptional threatens to obscure the quotidian. What about the men and women who lived through slavery without taking up arms against it? Their experience was the norm for slave societies and, I would argue, is as important, as interesting and as full of political struggle as the lives of those who became rebels. This essay focuses on the everyday lives of enslaved people, especially enslaved women, in the British colonies in the Caribbean, and asks what difference the abolition of the slave trade meant to them. It focuses in particular on two issues: labour and reproduction. Drawing on secondary work as well as my own research in Jamaican archives, it shows the complex results of the end of importation of enslaved Africans. One outcome of the end of the slave trade was increased pressure on enslaved women, and thus increased conflict between them and those who sought to exploit them.
Read it in its entirety here.
The index of articles for the issue on slavery:
by Marika Sherwood
by Diana Paton
by Christer Petley
by Natalie Zacek
by Tim Lockley
by James Walvin
by Pieter C. Emmer
Ana Lucia Araujo