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The Zong Massacre

… 236 years later a story of mass murder fuels hope

BY GARFIELD MYERS
Editor-at-Large
South Central Bureau
myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 06, 2017

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BLACK RIVER, St Elizabeth — In May 2015, Canadian literary Professor Michelle Faubert was doing routine research in the acclaimed British Library, the national library of the United Kingdom, when she struck gold.

As she leafed through a volume of printed papers about medical issues, an aged, “beautiful”, handwritten document, that had apparently been misfiled, jumped out at her.

It soon turned out that the document was authored by famed abolitionist Granville Sharp. It was a draft of a letter intended for the British Admiralty demanding criminal action against officers and crew of the Zong slave ship, for the murder of 132 Africans — 122 of whom had been thrown overboard — before the ship's arrival at Black River in December 1781.

Historians say the final draft of the letter which was sent to the Admiralty was never found, nor was there ever a reply or acknowledgement.

But the draft document found by Faubert, which the British Library apparently never knew it had, is said to be of monumental historic importance and has rendered the Canadian professor a celebrity of sorts.

Many historians and the anti-slavery lobby of the late 18th-Century argued that the mass murder on the Zong was only in aid of a failed attempt by the ship's officers and crew to claim insurance damages. This was after disease killed more than 60 of their “cargo” of Africans and left many others ailing on the overloaded, slow-moving ship.

In their defence, the crew claimed they were forced into throwing Africans overboard in order to save themselves and other captives (cargo) after water ran low.

The “massacre”, as Sharp called it, became a turning point in the campaign leading to the 1807 abolition of the centuries-old British Transatlantic trade of kidnapped Africans, who were sold into slavery in the Caribbean and the wider Americas. In the British Empire, the campaign eventually ended with the abolition of slavery in the 1830s, though in much of the Americas the abominable practice continued deep into the second half of the 1800s.

In Black River today, an etched stone monument in memory of the Zong Massacre, laid in 2007 to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, stands at 2 Market Street, across the road from the Bank of Nova Scotia, close to the town's market.

It's just metres away from the bank of the river — for which the town is named — where tourists visit daily for recreational boat rides. From the seaside, also just metres away, it's easy to visualise slave ships such as the Zong and other cargo vessels anchored out at sea, 200-plus years ago. Back then, St Elizabeth's sugar planters and merchants — slave owners all — were rich and getting richer, and Black River was especially prosperous.

Locals say the monument, which has been rehabilitated and re-etched in recent months following years of neglect, is on the spot where newly arrived Africans were auctioned.

In May, during a ceremony at the monument, Faubert, whose discovery of the mislaid Z ong manuscript has led her to write and speak extensively on a subject with which she has become “obsessed”, was obviously deeply moved.

“I have often wondered, never having been here, what might this place look like?” she said reflectively, while glancing around her. “I wondered where the ship landed after such a terrible event. Would such a massacre have marked the people? Jamaicans are so strong and yet you are remembering, that's a delight for me,” she said.

Her comments were not lost on her listeners, some of whom have talked about Black River as a heritage tourism site. Black River, the capital of St Elizabeth, is among Jamaica's oldest communities, with many protected, historic buildings and colourful stories. But so far, tourism benefits come mostly from river boat trips.

Donna Parchment Brown, political ombudsman and St Elizabeth native who was among the chief organisers of the May 9 event featuring Faubert, was quick to identify the Granville Sharp letter as “a line in the sand against slavery”. She also pointed to the value of the Zong experience to Black River's tourism ambitions.

Noting that Faubert's finding of the Granville Sharp letter “brings us here”, Parchment Brown spoke of Black River in 1781 as a “popular and elegant town”, and made the link to historic sites such as the Zong monument.

“Through heritage tourism we can empower the people of St Elizabeth to unlock their potential,” she said. Crucially, locals would have to recognise the promise and get it done themselves.

“There is no Santa Claus, no Easter bunny, no one else there — is just each one of us,” Parchment Brown said.

Floyd Green, Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Western, which includes Black River, missed the May 9 ceremony. But in the build-up to 'emancipendence' week he told the Jamaica Observer of plans to “enhance” the site of the monument and tap into its visitor potential.

Green said he was seeking “significant funding” from Government and private sources to develop a mural “which depicts the story” of the Zong.

“The Zong monument marks a critical part of our history and we have to do all that we can to enhance the monument, enhance the site,” he said.

“You see the monument there but unless somebody goes up and reads the storyboard, you have a difficulty. What we want is a constant, profound reminder,” Green said.

The MP argued that the Zong site ties into a dream of Black River as a centre of culture and heritage, largely because of “a number of historic firsts that puts it (town) in a special category”.

“We have a niche and we have to find an effective way to make use of it, and the Zong factors heavily into that,” he said.

As told by historians, the Zong episode is among the more extraordinary of the transatlantic slave trade, which is often referred to as the Middle Passage of a triangular voyage involving Europe, Africa, the Americas, and back to Europe. Millions of kidnapped Africans were transported to the Caribbean and the wider Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries in horrific, indescribably unsanitary conditions aboard small, cramped, and slow-moving ships. An estimated 1.5 million Africans died as a result of sickness during the long, painful journey.

The Zong left the coast of West Africa on September 6, 1781 with well over 400 slaves, twice as many as the vessel was built to hold.

As described by Faubert “during the Middle Passage, the Africans who had been stolen (kidnapped) would be packed head to foot. Packed under the decks, packed like sardines, and they (ship's crew) wouldn't often let them up on deck because they were afraid of rebellion… they were terrified of this, so they would keep them (Africans) chained under the decks. If one person got sick, so many others would get sick, and that's what happened on the Zong”.

According to Faubert “well over 60 slaves died (on the Zong) between Africa and Jamaica and many more were sick”.

The situation was worsened by adverse winds and sometimes no wind, which slowed and at some stages stalled the progress of the ship. By late November, more than 60 slaves and seven of the Zong crew members were dead.

A navigational error made matters worse. The ship had come within sight of Jamaica but mistook it for the then French colony of St Dominique (now Haiti) and swung sharply away. Days later, the error was realised and the Zong back-tracked, eventually arriving at Black River on December 22.

By then the ship's crew had thrown 122 Africans into the sea in three batches. Ten others jumped to their deaths in defiance and desperation. According to some historical accounts — including Sharp's — another man who jumped apparently grabbed a rope hanging from the ship and somehow “secreted” himself aboard to arrive in Black River safely.

In Jamaica, the ship's captain, Luke Collingwood, and his crew claimed the drowned slaves were jettisoned because water had run low aboard the vessel. They had to save themselves and the rest of the human cargo, they said. On that basis and relying on prevailing laws relating to cargo, the owners of the vessel made an insurance claim for the murdered Africans.

They prevailed initially in court. But the insurers appealed, pointing out, among other details, that the ship arrived in Black River with 420 gallons of water which, with judicious use, would have been sufficient to keep crew and murdered Africans alive. The initial ruling was overturned and the insurers prevailed.

However, efforts by Sharp and others, including legendary freed slave and freedom activist Olaudah Equiano — who first told Sharp about the Zong — to bring criminal charges failed.

Britain's solicitor general of the day, Justice John Lee, is alleged to have scoffed: “What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder… the case is the same as if wood had been thrown overboard.”

However, the story of the Zong was priceless in adding fuel and inspiration to the anti-slavery campaign.

Responding to questions from journalists in May, Faubert suggested that the current renewed interest could provide impetus to the reparations campaign by the descendants of enslaved Africans.

“Could this be a case that could strengthen the argument for reparations? I think it could be… The fortunate thing is that we can resurrect the story of the Zong in the way that it was used in the 18th century, so that people realise again the horrors of the story. It is such a poignant and terrible story. The more it is retold to people, the more it can help to mend in some way — though it can never be fixed — the terrible history of slavery,” said Faubert.


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