Image showing slaves being thrown overboard from the 'Zong' - 1781
A plaque was unveiled at the Black River market in St. Elizabeth on December 28, to memorialize the 133 live African slaves who were thrown from the British slave ship, the Zong, in 1781.
On December 28, 1781, the Zong docked in Black River with 208 Africans, 232 less than when it left the African coast.
"The story of the Zong and what took place on board by the standards of the 18th century were shocking with no equal in barbarity, as the decision by Luke Collingwood, the Captain, to throw overboard 133 live Africans has assumed a canonical form, as it embodies the horrors of the Transatlantic Trade in Africans to Jamaica and it is an important part of St. Elizabeth and Jamaica's history which needs to be exposed and its victims needed to be memorialised in some tangible way," Professor Verene Shepherd, Chairman, Jamaica National Bicentenary Committee, said at the ceremony.
Giving an overview of the voyage and the massacre, she pointed out that the Zong was originally a Dutch ship, which was captured by the British.
"Apparently, its Dutch name was the Zorg, meaning 'care'. It was misread as Zong and by 1781 the vessel was owned by a consortium of Liverpool merchants and the ship left for Africa on March 5, 1781. On board was a crew of 20 men led by Collingwood. The date it arrived in West Africa is not listed but records show it traversed the Gold coast, Cape coast, Anomabu, Adja and Agga looking for hapless victims to kidnap and transport to Jamaica and on September 6, 1781, a total of 440 Africans faced a life of uncertainty as the ship left for Jamaica," she said.
Professor Shepherd explained that the large number of Africans and the cramped and inhumane conditions on board caused sickness and death, as the Africans were afflicted with dysentery, fever, diarrhoea, small pox and respiratory-related illnesses.
"Based on the evidence, as many as 60 died within the first seven weeks but the death toll would rise as Collingwood had to determine what to do with the many other Africans who fell ill. If those who were ill eventually died from natural causes, the merchants would have to absorb the financial loss but the insurers would pay, the captain reasoned, if it could be proven that the Africans drowned," she said.
In light of this, Professor Shepherd said that Collingwood devised and executed an "evil design" along with his first mate, Colonel James Kelshal and crew.
"Within a few days, 133 Africans whom the crew thought was least likely to recover were chained, ankle by ankle and then thrown overboard, weighed down with balls. Some 55 were thrown overboard on November 29 and 42 on November 30. In his defence, Collingwood posited that the lack of water influenced his decision, but Kelshal noted that there was a heavy downpour of rain on November 30. In fact when the ship reached Black River on December 28 it had over 400 gallons of fresh water on board and yet in spite of this, 26 more Africans were thrown overboard on December 1," she said.
Two years later on March 6, 1783 the case of the Zong went to court in an action entitled Gregson vs Gilbert.
Professor Shepherd noted that in this instance it was not the "mass murder" that had taken place on board that was brought against Collingwood and crew, but because the underwriters refused to honour a claim of 30 pounds per head for each African who died.
"The Judge, Lord Mansfield stated that there was no doubt that the case was the same as if horses were thrown overboard. No officer or crew were charged or prosecuted for the deliberate killing of 133 people. Indeed Solicitor General, John Lee declared that a master could drown slaves without a surmise of impropriety," she said.
Professor Shepherd pointed out that the highlighted facts of the case had a "snowball effect" on the abolition movement.
Two famous activists emerged in the form of Thomas Clarkson who wrote an essay on 'Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species' and John Ramsay who wrote on 'The treatment and conversion of African Slaves in the Sugar Colonies'.
For his part, Chairman of the ceremony, Professor Barry Chevannes emphasised the need for all Jamaicans to remember their history.
"May we never forget what our ancestors had to endure on their way to the Caribbean," he said.