The insurance case that helped end the slave trade

June 19, 2020, 9:00 AM UTC

The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the U.K., sparked initially by George Floyd’s killing in the U.S, have brought renewed attention to Britain’s historic role in slavery

On Thursday, insurance market Lloyd’s of London became one of the first British firms to issue a formal apology for its involvement with slavery, offering to make reparations in the form of financial support to organizations working to promote more economic opportunities for black people and other communities of color.

Insurance was vital in facilitating the transatlantic slave trade. The majority of ships plying the infamous Middle Passage between Africa and the Caribbean in the late 18th century, when British involvement in slave trading was reaching its height, carried insurance, according to historians Robin Pearson and David Richardson of the University of Hull, who coauthored an analysis of the insurance policies some of these voyages carried.

And, in fact, the recent protests have put the spotlight back on a little-remembered, but landmark, insurance lawsuit, that awoke public anger over the brutality of the slave trade and which many credit with helping to spark Britain’s abolition movement: “the Zong case.”

When the Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol earlier this month dumped a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent slaver, in the harbor, Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, was among the many commentators who took to Twitter to note that it was poetic justice: Slave-ship captains often threw slaves overboard during the infamous Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. And many of these commentators explicitly mentioned the Zong.

The Zong was a British slaving ship, owned by a syndicate of wealthy slavers and merchants from Liverpool, including William Gregson, who would later become the city’s mayor. It was insured by another syndicate that included a group of other Liverpool slave-ship owners. In mid-August 1781, the ship departed Ghana with 442 slaves on board—twice the number the ship was designed to safely carry—bound for Jamaica. Through a series of mishaps and navigational errors, the Zong took more than three months to reach Jamaica, and then wound up missing the island and running perilously low on water. Exactly what happened next is a matter of dispute, but one thing is clear: Over the three days starting on Nov. 29, the crew murdered 142 slaves by tossing them overboard.

The Zong finally reached Jamaica on Dec. 22. When word of what had happened eventually made it back to England, the Zong’s owners tried to claim compensation for the drowned slaves under their insurance. Policies excluded claims for slaves who died from “natural causes,” such as disease, malnutrition, or accidents. But policyholders could claim for slaves who died due to “perils of the sea,” such as storms, or under a “general average” rule that allowed cargo to be jettisoned in emergencies to save the ship.

The insurers suspected the Zong’s peril, if it existed at all, arose only through the incompetence of her crew and refused to pay. (Evidence would later emerge that, after the first day of killings, it had rained heavily, and the ship had sufficient water on board when it did reach Jamaica, leading some historians to suspect the crew always intended to commit insurance fraud through the massacre.) So the Zong’s owners sued.

In a trial in 1783, the jury ruled in favor of the owners. But the insurers appealed. At which point, the early abolitionist Granville Sharp caught wind of the case and began chronicling the barbaric behavior of the Zong’s crew in contemporary newspaper accounts. He also began looking into whether he could bring a private prosecution against the Zong’s crew for murder. During the appeal, among a variety of other arguments, lawyers for the insurers tried to make the case that the Zong’s crew had indeed committed murder when they tossed the slaves overboard and should not profit from it.

The appeal was heard by Lord Mansfield, who had also presided over the initial trial, and two other judges. Mansfield had, years earlier in a famous case, ruled that slavery was not supported by common law in England, providing an early chink in slavery’s legitimacy. And Sharp no doubt hoped he would rule in favor of the insurers.

But, in the Zong appeal, Mansfield ruled that the jury had been right to discount the humanity of the slaves. The jury, he said, “had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board…The Question was, whether there was not an Absolute Necessity for throwing them over board to save the rest? The Jury were of opinion there was.”

During the appeal, however, new evidence had emerged of the crew’s numerous navigational blunders and the rainstorm during the killing spree, so Mansfield ordered a new trial. (There is no record that the trial ever took place, and it is possible the shipowners dropped their claim in light of the new evidence.)

As a legal precedent it only affirmed the right of slave-ship captains to murder slaves, but politically, the case would prove to be an important victory for Sharp and the abolitionist cause. The Zong case helped galvanize public opinion against the slave trade, according to James Walvin, emeritus professor of history at the University of York and author of a 2011 book on the case. “It really starts out of that courtroom and the propaganda that flows out of it from Granville Sharp,” he says. With an increasingly literate society in England and widespread books and newspapers, for the first time the majority of Britons become aware of the barbarous practices taking place in the middle of the Atlantic, Walvin says.

The case had no immediate impact on slave voyages or the insurance industry that supported them, Pearson and Richardson say. Richardson notes that because most of the insurance syndicates were made up of other slave-ship owners, they were insulated from the pressure the abolitionist movement brought to bear.

Parliament, however, was not, and by the end of the 1780s, it was forced to respond to numerous petition drives calling for an end to slavery. These petition campaigns resulted in the passage of a series of Slave Trade Acts, starting in 1788, that improved the conditions on British slaving ships by restricting the number of slaves each ship could legally transport and ensuring certain sanitary conditions. In 1794, the Slave Trade Act was amended to limit the way insurers could underwrite slave voyages, making the “perils of the sea” and other general phrases illegal. Finally, in 1807, Parliament made it illegal for any British ship to carry slaves and for British insurers to underwrite slaving voyages. 

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