Here's the story of how one captain went to murderous lengths to make a profit while transporting a ship full of slaves across the Atlantic, as excerpted from When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain by Giles Milton, the basis for the podcast, Unknown History.
Captain Luke Collingwood was used to grim voyages across the Atlantic, but this one had been worse than most.
Dysentery, diarrhea, and smallpox had already claimed the lives of seven of the crew aboard the Zong. The slave cargo had suffered a far higher mortality rate. More than sixty had died since leaving the shores of Africa.
As Captain Collingwood searched in vain for the coast of Jamaica, he grew increasingly alarmed. He knew that the ship’s insurers would not cover the cost of his lost human cargo. Since each slave was worth about £30, he stood to lose a fortune.
A Sinister Plot
On November 29, 1781, he was struck by a macabre idea, one that could turn loss into profit. At a meeting with the Zong’s officers, he suggested that they throw the slaves overboard. There was a sinister logic to his reasoning. If his slaves died of illness, their insurance value was lost. But if they were thrown overboard in order to preserve the ship’s scant supply of water (and thereby save the lives of others), an insurance claim would be valid under a legal principle known as the ‘general average,' It allowed the captain of a ship to sacrifice some of his ‘passengers’ in order to save others.
Collingwood went below decks to select his first ‘parcel’ of victims. He decided to concentrate on the women and children, probably because he knew that they would put up less of a struggle. A total of fifty-four were hurled off the ship and could be seen flailing in the sea before eventually weakening and drowning.
Two days later, on December 1st, Collingwood elected to throw out another ‘parcel:' this time, his forty-two victims were all men. They drowned so quickly, and with such little effort on the part of the captain and his crew, that Collingwood decided to pitch even more slaves overboard. He ordered another thirty-six to be thrown into the ocean.
But this third batch of victims were made of stronger stuff and vehemently refused to go to their deaths without a struggle. Collingwood’s men were forced to chain them by the ankle and weigh their feet with balls of iron so they would sink immediately.
A Turn of Fortune
Three weeks after the last murders, the Zong finally reached Jamaica with 208 slaves still aboard. They sold for an average price of £36 each, earning Collingwood a substantial profit even before he made his insurance claim. But he did not have long to enjoy his money: he died within three days of making landfall.
The ship’s owners expressed their full support for what the late Captain Collingwood had done and filed an insurance claim for the 132 slaves that had been thrown overboard. They hoped to recuperate nearly £4,000 in jettisoned ‘cargo.'
Thus began a court case that was marked by callousness, cynicism and sheer human greed. The jury were in agreement with the owners and insisted that the insurers pay up the money for the drowned slaves. But the insurers appealed against the decision and asked for the case to be retried. This time, it was to be heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.
Did Lord Mansfield condemn Captain Collingwood’s horrific act?
To find out the answer, listen to the full episode of our new podcast, Unknown History, in the top right hand player of this page or on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spotify. Plus, connect with Giles on Twitter and Facebook.