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A look at the Zong Massacre

Published on 23 March 2021

Welcome to Insurance Covered! The podcast that looks at the inner workings of the insurance industry with the help of expert guests. Our guest this week is Trevor Burnard and we will be discussing the most notorious insurance coverage case in history, Gregson v Gilbert also known as 'The Zong Massacre'. Trevor is the Wilberforce Professor of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull and the Director of the Wilberforce Institute.

The Zong massacre is a notorious event in insurance history and involved the despicable murder of enslaved people in an attempt to claim back losses in insurance. The Zong was a ship captured in Ghana by a British family, the Gregson's, who wanted to make a bit of profit from the slave trade. They used the Zong to put on a very large number of captives with a very small crew and send them across to Kingston, Jamaica, where they intended on selling the captives. However during their voyage, the ship encountered trouble and found itself off course and running low of supplies, namely water.

The crew are said to have had three choices that they could have made. The first and the most obvious one was to ration what they had and wait for water to arrive, in other words, rain, or wait for another ship to come by. The second one would be to batten down the hatches so slaves could not escape, accept that slaves would die from dehydration and disease and then when they got to Jamaica try and sell as many slaves as they could for whatever price they could get,  which was what normally happened on slave ships in this sort of situation. The third one was what they did do which was to decide to throw overboard 54 women and children in order, they claimed later on, to stop a rebellion. They did this on 29th November, they threw over another 42, all men on the 1st December and sometime after 6th December they threw over another 26 captives while 10 Africans threw themselves overboard. This equates to the abhorrent murder of 122 captives.

The Gregson's 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 the claim on this matter, it's thought that the actions of the Gregson's made him doubt this was a legitimate claim and more of a scheme to maximise profits and make up for their poor voyage. The decision was then taken to the courts to decide, initially the decision went in favour of the slave traders, but on appeal, Lord Mansfield reversed the decision. Two key reasons are cited for this; the manner in which a number of captives which threw themselves off the ship and also the claim that lack of water was the reason for insurrection when in fact there had been heavy rain before, during and after the massacre.

Despite the case going against the slave traders the story unfortunately has an unsavoury ending, they did not win their claim but the ultimately got away with murder. The Zong was one of the first cases that signalled the changing of attitudes and the kickstart of the abolitionist movement.

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