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by BBC Radio 4
In Our Time: History

The Zong Massacre


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


Vincent Brown
Charles Warren, professor of American history and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University

Bronwen Everill
Class of 1973, lecturer in history and fellow at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge


Jake Subryan Richards
assistant professor of History at the London School of Economics

Studio production: Hannah Sander



by BBC Radio 4