This horrendous crime took place aboard Zong, a cargo ship nurturing the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The vessel disembarked from Africa in 1781, carrying along at least 442 enslaved people. On their journey to colonial Jamaica, the captives had to endure a torturous three months on the sea. There would be trifling food rations and scant water supply, not to mention, the coffin-like arrangement to sleep. Very often these damp vehicles would be havens for outbreaks, decimating the slave populations by the dozen. In short, the under-decks were carefully engineered purgatories, as if to accustom the inmates for the Inferno that lay ahead. Following the conventions of the trade, Zong’s crew had loaded more than twice the people it could safely transport. Unsurprisingly, they had secured an equally unscrupulous insurer to underwrite their ‘cargo’ for any damages.
The voyage was Luke Collingwood’s maiden run as captain; he had previously served as a ship surgeon. The vessel was heavily understaffed with merely 17 crew members, a number completely inadequate to maintain sanitary conditions on board. The fateful event occurred when the crew made a navigation error misrecognizing Jamaica as Saint-Domingue. The mistake duly recognized only after the vessel had detracted by more than 300 miles off the destination. As a result, the water supplies were extremely meager, putting all the lives in mortal danger. However, Collingwood’s men were grappling with a different concern altogether. According to the insurance policy, if the enslaved people died a ‘natural death’ the creditors would not be liable to pay anything. Afraid of scoring a loss on his debutant journey, Collingwood made a murderous decision. On 29th November 1781, they threw 130 men, women, and children overboard. Hundreds of lives bloated away in the ocean — just to satiate the bottom line.