"'A Very Uncommon Case': Representations of the Zong and the British Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade," The Journal of Legal History, 28, 3, December, 2007, pp. 1-18. ISBN: 0144-0365 print/1744-0564 online
This article has been developed in relation to an invitation to participate in a one-day international symposium, The Zong: Legal, Social and Historical Dimensions, held in November 2006. It was organised by Prof Andrew Lewis, of University College in collaboration with the law department of City University, the London Legal History Seminar, and the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
While the story of the Zong in which a slave captain jettisoned 132 slaves in order to make an insurance claim is well-known within transatlantic slavery and abolition histories, the legal case, heard at the Court of the King’s Bench in 1783, has been little researched despite the fact that an unpublished transcript of the trial is lodged at the National Maritime Museum. The symposium brought together legal historians, literary and cultural critics and historical archaeologists to present their findings
The collected papers issuing from the symposium are published in a special edition of the Journal of Legal History. The articles are organised, in part, as a dialogue. Prof Tim Armstrong (Royal Holloway) responds directly to my original paper and subsequent article
My article addresses the significance of the case of the Zong for the formal abolition campaign to abolish the slave trade that developed in the 1780s. It combines historical and cultural contextualisation with close textual analysis in order to trace the ways in which the case produced an iconic narrative for the movement. The paper pays particular attention to the original accounting of the event as it was heard in the court, and then to the ways in which the latter was transformed as it circulated through key abolition propaganda documents. It argues that the legal implications of the trial fell away as the Zong was both appropriated and mythologised, in its adaptation to the requirements of the abolitionist’s sentimentalised humanitarian agenda.
Research on the case of the Zong was supported by a period of Research Leave granted by the Centre for Research Development, Faculty of Art and Architecture, University of Brighton (2005-2006). It forms part of an ongoing, wider research project concerning the relationship between political economy and discourses of moral sentiment in relation to the representation of transatlantic slavery (1770-1840). The article has developed in relation to several other conference/symposia papers, including, ‘History, Memory and the Case of the Slave-Ship ‘Zong’ at the ‘Contested Spaces’ Research Seminar, University of Brighton (2006), and ‘A Limited Sort of Property’: Representing the Zong, Abolitions: 1807-2007: ending the slave trade in the Transatlantic World, University of York, (2007). A related paper that considers contemporary literary representations of the Zong is forthcoming in Slavery & Abolition (2008).