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A Life Devoted to the Freedom of Others

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


The captain of the British slave ship Zong ordered his crew to throw 133 chained black Africans overboard to their deaths. He reckoned that by falsely claiming the ship had run out of fresh water, he could collect more for the “cargo” from the ship’s insurer than he could fetch at a slave auction in Jamaica.

The captain and crew were found out, but no one in the Zong affair was prosecuted for murder. A London court ruled the matter a mere civil dispute between an insurance firm and a client. As for the Africans, the judge declared their drowning was “just as if horses were killed,” which, as horrendous as it sounds today, was a view not far removed from the conventional wisdom that prevailed worldwide in 1785.

Slavery, after all, was an ancient institution. Even with our freedoms today, the number of people who have walked the earth in bondage far outnumbers those who have enjoyed even a modest measure of liberty.

Indeed, perhaps the luckiest of the people taken captive and bound for a life at the end of a lash were those who succumbed aboard ship, where mortality rates sometimes ran as high as 50 percent. Surviving the Middle Passage across the Atlantic from Africa was only the start of a hellish experience: endless and often excruciating toil, with death at an early age.

Moved by the fate of the Zong’s victims and the indifference of the court, a vice chancellor at the University of Cambridge chose this question for the university’s annual Latin essay contest:

“Anne liceat invitos in servitutem dare?” — Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?

The contest was known throughout Britain, and the honor of winning it was highly prized…

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