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The Zong

A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery


James Walvin


Yale University Press, 2011

Cloth. xii+248 pp. ISBN 978-0300125559. $32.50


Reviewed by Karen O'Brien

University of Sydney



The author creates a formidable representation of slave-ship life on The Zong. With poise and clarity Walvin effectively controls his subject and recreates a brutal world where African people were enslaved by traders and perceived not as individuals but as ‘cargo’ [34]. A chilling terminology, devoid of humanity reflects a world of cruelty and violence where such racialist categorisation fell easily into the shipboard vernacular.

In masterful terms and without a shred of sentimentality, the author relates the cruel economic facts of slavery and ‘accountancy’ of shipboard violence; the costs of shackles and irons and highlights the everyday existence of the slave shipboard ‘industry’ [42]. In less capable hands such commercial minutiae might be boring. However, Walvin’s competent presentation is such that the tedium of historical statistics is expertly avoided. Financial terms underscore the slave ‘trade.’ Keywords such as ‘management’ ‘accountancy’ ‘cargo’ ‘haggling’ ‘tonnage’ and ‘industry’ convey the logic of shipboard economics alongside the costs of feeding and providing water for the ‘cargo.’ Such inhumane attitudes, born of the concepts of scientific racism, reflect the mindset of the slave ship industrialists towards the misery they caused to the people they enslaved. In this context, where ‘human cargo equals dollar value’, Walvin invites the reader to understand the mentality and context in which 132 African people, the insured ‘cargo’ of the Zong , was thrown overboard [43].

The author thus reconstructs a remarkable picture of slave ship life. In chapter three Walvin turns his attention to the international economics of the slave trade, the tonnage of ships and the shipbuilding industry across empires. Here he explores the ‘profitable’ transportation of slaves and such historical facts as the eight million African people who were transported as slaves; where enslavement began in Africa as a punishment for criminal activity and where African traders haggled about the price of the people they sold to the slave ship owners and where slaves assumed the role of ‘interpreters’ [33].

In a presentation of the toxic relationship between sailors and crew, the outcome of dehumanisation and the ‘poisoned relations’ of slave and owner, Walvin presents the social relations on the slave ship against the hopelessness of enslavement. In this world, where African people are ‘unspeakably sad’ and sing of homesickness, the fear and anxiety of the crew is pitched against the hatred of the enslaved towards their imprisoners in a terrible balance. In this atmosphere of mutual hatred he argues that ships surgeons were crucially important where ‘illness affects all alike’ [53].

A history of the economics of the slave-ship addresses the role and skills of captains. The author claims that Liverpool’s leadership ability was unsurpassed and that this society became the dominant port in the 1850s. Walvin demonstrates how the wealth of the city of Liverpool was based on the slave trade.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were two traditions of natural law, one was a defence of Indigenous rights and the other used natural law to justify Indigenous dispossession. As a result of the Enlightenment and the later inversion of Vitoria’s natural law tradition, Indigenous rights conformed to European racial epistomes. The Zong confirms the broader interpretation that the end of slavery was not the result of humanitarian concern but was one of law. Walvin explores the acceleration of human rights that took place in late eighteenth century through Granville Sharp [116]. The tension of the economy versus humanity is personified in the relationship between Mansfield and Sharp [53]. In The Zong, Walvin expertly builds legal antagonism through Mansfield, the ‘cold facts’ judge and Sharp, the legal rights advocate.

Walvin tells us that slaves were not freed simply by living in England or by Baptism in the process of ‘civilising heathens’ as such legal controversies about slavery had taken place since 1569 [121]. Slavery law was found to be ‘injurious to natural rights’ [122]. The most important point made in the study of The Zong, however, is that the abolition of slave ship trade was not based on ethical, moral or humanitarian objections but was pursued as a matter of law and was prompted as a response to an insurance claim for the loss of ‘cargo’ and not the murder of 132 African people on board a ship.

Walvin excels in his analysis of the economics of the slave trade. However, the reader might better understand the analysis of the slave trade within in a more pronounced theoretical framework of scientific racism and essentialism. Terms such as ‘black and white’ might then be avoided as such racially assigned terms provide a limited perspective of the subject. The concept of scientific racism explains the distance and dehumanising aspects that are inherent in the mentality that fostered the conditions of slavery. European philosophers influenced scientific thinking about race, ascribing racially constructed and essentialist identities based on race, blood quantum measurement and skin colour and constructed reality in a way that complimented colonialist values, such as slavery, and created images of ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’ beings. In scientific representation, colonised peoples were depicted variously as animals, or infantilised, demonised or presented as underdeveloped examples of humanity.

It was the influence of such scientific racism that created the distance that enabled the ship owners to throw individuals overboard. It was a decision of economic importance. In the slave-ship mentality present aboard The Zong, African people were not considered to be human and were perceived as economic units.


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