A fine example of Romantic maritime painting, JMW Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1840 to great acclaim. The story that inspired it, however, is anything but romantic.
The full title of the painting is ‘The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)’ and it refers to a shocking and gruesome incident described in a book, “The History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade”, written by Thomas Clarkson. Having read the book, Turner, deeply affected by the true story, resolved to express his feelings about it on canvas.
In August 1781, the Zong, a ship owned by a Liverpool syndicate led by one of the city’s major slave traders, William Gregson, left Accra with a cargo of over four hundred African slaves, double the normal number for a ship of that size. Halfway across the Atlantic, the ship’s captain, Luke Collingwood, was taken seriously ill. First mate James Kelsall would normally have replaced him, but he had been suspended from duty following an argument, so a passenger, Robert Stubbs, who was not a registered member of the vessel’s crew but had captained a slave ship several decades earlier, took temporary command. The officers quarrelled amongst themselves and consequently failed to make a scheduled stop at Tobago to take on more drinking water.
The situation rapidly became desperate and on 29 November, with water supplies critically low and the ship having overshot Jamaica (Stubbs having misidentified it as the French colony of Saint-Domingue), the crew conceived a chillingly ruthless plan. The ship’s owners had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. They were not covered if slaves perished through neglect or illness, but if some of the slaves were jettisoned in order to save the rest of the cargo (or the ship itself), then a claim could be made in accordance with the legal principle of maritime law known as ‘general average’. During the next few days, the crew threw between 130 and 140 slaves overboard.
On 22 December 1781, the Zong arrived at Black River, Jamaica, with just 208 slaves on board. The insurers refused to honour the claim for compensation and were taken to court by the Liverpool syndicate. Protracted legal proceedings ensued and eventually the insurers won their case.
The Zong became a rallying cry for the abolitionist movement, but no one was ever prosecuted for the massacre.