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Collingwood's Massacre

In 1781 a slave ship, named the Zong (based out of Liverpool, England), was on a horrible trip to get human beings—to sell them in Jamaica.  The ship made it to Africa, along the coast of present-day Ghana, and then to Sao Tome (or St. Thomas, an island near present day Gabon and Equatorial Guinea).  Luke Collingwood was the captain of the ship and he decided to go with a “tight” packing method.

He loaded the ship with over four hundred and forty men, women and children…although this was well above the capacity for the ship.  On September 6, 1781 they left Sao Tome and headed out on the two-and-a-half to three-month trip to Jamaica.

By the time the ship got near to Jamaica, the captain mistook Hispaniola for Jamaica and decided to get the ship headed in the right direction.  This was November 27, 1781 and the ship had already been at sea for almost three months, since its departure from the coast of Africa.  The men, women and children who were crammed into the ship, in chains, were sick and frail…and almost 60 of them had already died. 

On November 29th Captain Collingwood called together the crew.  He explained to them that if the human beings on board (the cargo) died from natural causes such as diseases, the insurers would not compensate the owners of the ship for their loss, but if they died out of a necessity to save the ship and the rest of the cargo, then the insurers would pay for the loss of goods.

The captain contended that they did not have enough water to sustain the crew and the men, women and children who were chained onboard and that, therefore, they needed to throw many of them overboard in order to save the crew and the ship.

At first one of the mates in the crew objected, but the captain's word prevailed.  Collingwood instructed the crew to take groups of men, women and children up from the bowels of the ship.  The crew then took turns chaining the men, women and children and throwing them overboard.

On the first day, 54 people drowned after being thrown overboard.  The next day, another 42 people were brought on deck and the crew, again, took turns chaining them and throwing them overboard.  

Finally, on the third day, another 36 people were brought on deck.  The men, women and children were sick and near death.  They were not able to fight off their killers, but ten of them fought and were not chained—they jumped into the water themselves.  So, on that day, 26 were chained and thrown into the sea and 10 jumped in, rather than be chained by their murderers.  

By December 22, 1781, the ship had made it to Jamaica.  

The case strikes me because of the utter disregard for human life and because of the way the court proceedings played out once the Zong got back to England.

The owners of the ship filed a claim with their insurers to recover their financial loss for the 132 people who were thrown overboard.  The insurers refused to pay and several court cases and/or proceedings took place.

The Solicitor-General, who was acting on behalf of the owners, argued that the men, women and children were goods and that this was a matter of insurance.

“What is all this vast declamation of human people being thrown overboard?  This is a case of chattels or goods. 

…it is the case of throwing over goods; for to this purpose, and the purpose of the insurance, they are goods and property…”

The question of their humanity, and of murder, never truly entered into the legal questions decided upon during the proceedings (although they were alluded to--no charges were ever brought against anybody involved).

Lord Mansfield (who presided over the application for, and the actual, second trial) said, in reference to the first trial,

“The matter left to the jury, was, whether it was from necessity; for they had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.”

He further stated,

“…if the slaves die a natural death, the underwriters do not pay for them, but, in an engagement, if they are attacked and the slaves are killed, they will be paid for as much as for damages done to goods; and it is frequently done: just as if horses were killed.  They are paid for in the gross, as well as for horses killed; but you don’t pay for horses that die a natural death.”  

- From minutes taken in court on May 21, 1783.



Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC. 2016. 


Hoare, Prince, 1755-1834.  Memoirs of Granville Sharp, esq. (London: Printed for Henry Colburn and Co., 1820), pgs. (236 - 241) 237, 241 and Appendix VIII.

See also:  National Archives, United Kingdom.  British transatlantic slave trade records: “Case of the Zong massacre (1781)."


"Is This America?"

I have often thought about writing about Fannie Lou Hamer over the years, but this recent election has caused me to ask, "Is there anything I can learn from her experiences almost 50 years ago and are there any words from her life that can speak to me during this time of confusion?"  

There are:

"Is this America?"

Fannie Lou Hamer was born on October 6, 1917 in Montgomery County, Mississippi to Jim and Ella Townsend.

She worked on a farm as a sharecropper for 18 years and her parents, too, were sharecroppers.

When Fannie Lou was in her 20s, she married Perry Hamer and they tried, unsuccessfully, to have children.  Fannie suffered from a tumor and went into a hospital to receive treatment.  There she was given a full  hysterectomy, without her knowledge and without her consent.  She was furious and this was one of the things that set her on a path of freedom fighting as many African-American women had gotten the same treatment in her area; so much so that there was a term for that unwanted hysterectomy— the “Mississippi Appendectomy.”

On August 31, 1962 Fannie Lou Hamer was one of eighteen people who went to Indianola in Mississippi to register to vote.  When they got there they were detained and only two of them were allowed to take a literacy test in order to determine if they could vote.  This was 1962—only about 54 years ago. 

The group then left Indianola and started back toward Ruleville…but were stopped by city police and state highway patrolmen.  They were taken back to Indianola and the bus driver was charged with driving a bus that was the wrong color.  They had to pull together the money to pay the fine, then they went on their way.

When she got back to Ruleville, her children ran to meet her (she and her husband adopted children).  They told her that the plantation owner, where she worked, was mad at her.  Then her husband came to meet her and told her the same thing. 

The owner of the plantation, next came up and asked Fannie did she hear about what he had said.

She said, “Yes.”

He then said, “I mean it.  You will have to go down and take back your registration, or you will have to leave here.  And even if you do go to take it back, you still might have to leave here because we are not ready for that in Mississippi.” 

She told him, “I didn’t go down there to register for you, I went down there to register for myself.”

She had to leave that same night.  

About two weeks later a home in which it was believed she was staying was fired upon with about 16 shots, two girls were shot in Ruleville, MS and another home was fired upon.  The violence was real, but that did not stop Fannie Lou Hamer from actively registering people to vote.

On June 9, 1963 she attended a voter registration workshop in Charleston, SC and was on her way back to Mississippi with the group, when they stopped in Montgomery County, MS.  Four of the people got off of the bus to use the washroom and to go into a restaurant.  Fannie Lou Hamer stayed on the bus and noticed that the four people were rushed out of the restaurant.  She got off of the bus to see what was going on, when one of the men there yelled, “Get that one there.”

She and several others were arrested and she was kicked as she got into the police car. 

They were taken to the booking room in the county jail and then transferred to cells.  Fannie Lou Hamer was in a room with Ms. Ivesta Simpson, when Ms. Simpson was taken to another cell.  Fannie could later hear Ms. Simpson screaming and the sound of licks being laid on her body. 

She could hear a man say, “Can you say, ‘Yes, sir,’ nigger?”  “Can you say it?” 

Ms. Simpson would reply, “Yes, I can say, ‘Yes, sir.’" 

“Then say it,” the man would yell.

She courageously replied, “I don’t know you well enough.”

Fannie was then taken into her own cell, where two African American prisoners were waiting for her.

The patrolman ordered one of the prisoners to get the blackjack and he told Fannie to lay down, face-first, on the bunk bed that was in the room.  The first man began to beat her as she tried to protect herself by taking her hands and covering the left side of her body (because she suffered from polio as a child).  The first man beat her until he was exhausted and the second man was ordered to take up the blackjack.  He began to beat her as she worked her feet to defend herself, but the first man was ordered to sit on her to hold her down.  

A white man then approached her, who was in the room, and began to hit her in her head and told her to stop screaming.  It was days before members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and her husband could get her medical attention.

Fannie Lou Hamer told her story at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, to the convention’s credentials committee.  Fannie had helped to organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party because the traditional delegation from Mississippi was all-white and did not allow others to participate.  She hoped to be seated among the delegates at the convention.

Her testimony brought to the attention of the country the riveting situation of human and political rights in Mississippi at that time.  

Her words, from the closing parts of her testimony, speak to us today…as she retold all that she had been through. 

American Experience Films, PBS, Youtube channel.

“All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now,

I question America.

Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives are threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?"

Join the conversation.

Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC. 2016. 


American Public Media.  American Radio Works.  Fannie Lou Hamer.  Accessed 2016. http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/flhamer.html

Biography.com.   Fannie Lou Hamer Biography.  Accessed November 2016. http://www.biography.com/people/fannie-lou-hamer-205625#death-and-legacy

Howard University Library System.  Fannie Lou Hamer: Woman of Courage.  Bibliographical Essay:  Early Years.  Accessed November 11, 2016.  http://www.howard.edu/library/reference/guides/hamer/

PBS.  American Experience.  Biography:  Fannie Lou Hamer.  Accessed November 11, 2016.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/freedomsummer-hamer/


Youtube: American Experience PBS, Fannie Lou Hamer's Powerful Testimony, "Freedom Summer" clip 19

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267.