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  • The Zong: A Massacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery by James Walvin
  • Christine E. Sears
The Zong: A Massacre, the Law, and the End of Slavery. By James Walvin. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. 304pp. $32.50 (cloth).

James Walvin argues that the 1781 Zong tragedy nudged Britons one “nascent step” toward slavery’s abolition (p. 10). His riveting story unfolds from Liverpool’s docks, where slave ships were financed and outfitted, to the African coast, where human cargo was loaded, and back across the Atlantic to Jamaica. Walvin fills his narrative with rich, contextual details that flesh out the business of slaving while explicating how Britons came to perceive the extermination of 132 Africans aboard the Zong not as routine, but as cruel and immoral. His narrative highlights how the Zong came to “represent the depravity and heartless violence of the entire slave system” (p. 2).

For Walvin, the Zong represented both normal slaving practices and an extraordinary event that signaled the system’s demise. The Zong’s infamous journey started innocuously enough. Richard Hanley, an English ship captain, purchased the relatively small Dutch ship at Cape Coast Castle on behalf of Liverpool merchant William Gregson [End Page 890] and others. Gregson had long invested in slaving, and, as they had many times before, they bought insurance to cover the slave cargo they would be shipping.

Though few particulars are known about the Zong’s shipboard conditions, Walvin deftly uses recent scholarship to reconstruct slave ship circumstances for both crew and the enslaved. Seamen resisted signing on with slavers because of low pay, threat of disease, and need for constant vigilance against revolt. Officers relied on brutality to manage sailors and slaves. In turn, sailors exercised vicious control over the enslaved. Still, officers routinely secured bonuses when they sold healthy enslaved individuals, so why the violence? Scholars have shown how force and violence undergird slavery, and Walvin illustrates how that violence started with slaving, which was a “business of organized brutality and inhuman regimentation of its African victims” (p. 31).

Walvin traces how the Zong captured Britons’ attention and drove abolitionist sentiment. The Zong’s voyage suffered several instances of ill fortune, though Walvin indicates that disastrous planning and neglect were more to blame than providence. He lays out how a successful slaving venture depended on an experienced, savvy captain who could manage men and cargo and navigate business situations. Appointing Luke Collingwood, ship’s surgeon, to captain the Zong started a trend of ill-fated decisions. Collingwood had logged nine or ten Atlantic voyages but none as captain.

Because the surgeon-turned-captain took command in Africa, he had to assemble his crew and load slaves in atypical ways that Walvin reveals affected the ship’s trajectory. Enticing a crew proved even harder in Africa than in England, where it was no easy task. Worse, Captain Collingwood knew few of his crewmen as he embarked on a potentially dangerous mission. In addition, most captains carefully inspected each slave and loaded small numbers from different coastal points. Collingwood, however, inherited 244 enslaved individuals with the ship. He had not selected these slaves and knew nothing about them. Further, the enslaved had already occupied the ship for months together, a situation captains avoided at all costs. Last, Collingwood was saddled with a passenger, Robert Stubbs, a man with slaving knowledge and familiarity that might offset Collingwood’s greenness. Stubb’s experience perhaps counted for little: Collingwood burdened the 110-ton ship with 459 slaves, though ships this size normally carried only 193 Africans.

Walvin unfolds a mystery: how the Zong caused Britons to question the institution of slavery. He shifts readers’ attention to the social meaning assigned this voyage. The ship’s Atlantic passage was beset [End Page 891] with obstacles. First, the crew discovered that water casks had leaked, leaving them critically short. This made their unusually long passage particularly difficult. On average, ships expected 61 days to Jamaica. The Zong cruised for 100 days. Navigational errors may have caused the protracted journey, though the record is not clear. Captain Collingwood fell ill early in the crossing, started hallucinating, and could not command...


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