Olaudah Equiano and the Zong Massacre

Slave Ship by JWM Turner and portrait of Olaudah Equiano by Daniel Orme | Public Domain

If there’s one name that’s absolutely synonymous with the fight to end the Atlantic slave trade, that name is William Wilberforce. Charismatic and passionate, dubbed the ‘wittiest man in England’ (and also known for his superb singing voice), the Yorkshire MP was a towering advocate for abolition. His epic parliamentary campaign was instrumental in bringing about the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which ended the slave trade in the British Empire, and later the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended the institution of slavery itself in much of the Empire (though the British still continued to benefit from the business of slavery beyond that).

The spotlight of history still shines brightly (and rightly) on Wilberforce, but others have been left in the shade. Not just his fellow white abolitionists who fought alongside him, but also the black men who had achieved freedom against the odds and worked tirelessly against the institution that had once had them in shackles. A prominent member of the ‘Sons of Africa’, as these freed slaves were known, was Olaudah Equiano, whose response to one of the most notorious atrocities of the slave trade helped galvanise the abolitionist movement several years before Wilberforce was even involved.

The Zong massacre

On 29 November 1781, the crew of the British slave ship Zong made a decision that was striking in its callous barbarity, even by the standards of the time. The Zong, which had set sail from Accra, was packed far beyond capacity with 442 Africans forced into the foetid, disease-ridden, hellish squalor of the ship. Locked into a longer than planned voyage due to a navigational error en route to Jamaica, the crew was faced with the prospect of losing many of the slaves to disease, malnutrition and thirst. Compassion wasn’t a factor here. It was simply a financial concern: if the Africans died on board, the traders wouldn’t be eligible to receive insurance money on their human cargo.

At no point was there any moral outrage over the deaths of so many human beings.

So, the decision was taken to throw a proportion of people overboard. By justifying this as a necessary measure to save drinking water and ensure the survival of the rest of the cargo, the traders hoped to get an insurance payout on the slaves they murdered. And so the massacre unfolded, with men, women and children thrown mercilessly into the ocean. Some, realising their fate, chose to commit suicide rather than be tossed like rubbish. It’s thought that around 142 enslaved Africans died, yet, far from inspiring visceral horror back in Britain, the only controversy surrounded the legal liability of the insurance company to cover the loss of ‘cargo’. In March 1783, the case was tried in London, with the insurers disputing their liability. The jury found in favour of the slave traders, and the insurers tried to reverse the decision on appeal. At no point was there any moral outrage over the deaths of so many human beings.

Enter, Olaudah Equiano

The legal disputes between the insurers and the owners of Zong came to the notice of Olaudah Equiano. At that point, Equiano was in his late 30s and making a new life for himself in London after tumultuous early years as a slave. There’s still some disagreement between historians about Equiano’s birthplace, with some believing he was actually born in South Carolina rather than Africa. Either way, what we do know is he had a succession of different owners, including a Royal Navy officer and a prominent merchant. The latter provided Equiano with an education and let him do business for himself, allowing him to make a profit and eventually purchase his own freedom. He eventually moved to England – a safer place than the colonies, where he ran the risk of being kidnapped and pushed back into slavery.

On hearing of the Zong trial, Equiano brought it to the attention of Granville Sharp, a passionate crusader for social justice who was committed to challenging slavery. Sharp regarded the Zong Massacre as just that – a massacre, rather than a dry legal dispute about maritime insurance practices. 

Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well-serving honourable men of murder.’

Sharp would agitate hard to have others see the case in this light, sending letters to newspapers and politicians. It was a losing battle – slavery was still widely regarded as a legitimate business interest like any other. In fact, at the appeal hearing instigated by the insurers, the barrister acting for the Zong’s owners put it bluntly: ‘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 appeal verdict was in favour of the insurers, meaning they were not liable to pay out over the lost ‘cargo’. But, despite the activism of Equiano and Sharp, there was no prospect of the slave traders facing criminal charges for murder. However, their efforts were not totally in vain.

The awareness they raised would help spur the creation of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, while Equiano himself became known as one of the most eloquent and poignant witnesses to the grotesque reality of slavery. His autobiography, published in 1789, became a bestseller, and he went on to settle in Cambridgeshire after marrying an Englishwoman named Susannah Cullen. Their taboo-shattering marriage was a quietly trailblazing conclusion to a remarkable life and career – a career that had helped steer the nation’s discourse against slavery and pave the way for Wilberforce and the other more prominent champions of human dignity and liberty who came after.