Slaves often went overboard – but usually due to despair
On November 29, 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong realised their supplies of drinking water were running perilously low. The ship, owned by a syndicate based in Liverpool, was taking around 400 slaves from Africa across the Atlantic. By the time it reached the coast of Jamaica, the situation was desperate. However, an easy solution was reached: the crew simply unchained 140 slaves and threw them overboard. The dead included 54 women and children. After all, if the slaves – their property – died at sea rather than on land or from ânatural causes’, the ship’s owners could claim them on their insurance policy.
The company duly filed its insurance claim for the value of around 140 slaves. The court case caused outrage, and indeed it was instrumental in winning support for what became the Slave Trade Act of 1788, the first British legislation aimed at regulating the cruel trade. And, while, the insurers refused to pay out and the judge backed their stance, he still noted that there were circumstances in which it was acceptable for slave ship captains to order slaves be thrown overboard to their certain deaths.
For reasons of simple economics rather than humanity, captains were reluctant to throw slaves overboard during the âmiddle passage’. Of course, slaves who died during the journey were thrown over the side almost as soon as they were found. However, only in extreme cases did living slaves meet the same fate. Captains were under pressure to arrive with as many âheads’ as possible and so would usually resort to other measures, including torture and other extreme punishments, if they caught a slave trying to escape or incite a rebellion.
That’s not to say that hardly any slaves ended up in the cold waters of the Atlantic. Tragically, many did indeed drown. However, in many cases, this was an act of desperation and defiance, with both slave men and women preferring to kill themselves than await their fate in the Americas. Slave ship captain John Newton recalled: “When we were putting the slaves down in the evening, one that was sick jumped overboard. Got him in again but he died immediately, between his weakness and the salt water he swallowed.”
Most large slave ships had their crew on stand-by to ârescue’ slaves who threw themselves overboard and some even fitted special âsuicide nets’ to prevent jumpers – again, motivated by greed rather than any sense of humanity. To get around this, some slaves even asked their fellow captives to strange them. In cases of suicide, some crews would decapitate the corpses of slaves, telling the remaining captives that they too would go to the afterlife with no head if they chose the âeasy way out’.