The Meaning of Zong: an aural story of slavery, abolition and the law

“What was heard in that court can never be unheard….”

Paul Magrath
5 min readApr 5, 2021
The Slave Ship by J. M. W. Turner — Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Public Domain

The Zong was a slave trading ship that got caught up in a legal storm, in 1783, after its owners claimed to to be entitled to compensation from their insurers for the value of slaves thrown overboard, just like any other form of cargo, jettisoned to save the ship after it ran into difficulty. The claim was resisted by the insurers, who appealed against an initial finding in the shipowners’ favour, and the appeal was heard in a court presided over by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield.

The hearing at Westminster Hall was attended by crowds of spectators, including a group of abolitionists including the leading anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp and a former slave going by the name of Gustavus Vassa. They were anxious not only to witness and write about the trial but also to use it to publicise the cause of abolitionism.

The Meaning of Zong, a play by Giles Terera developed in workshops by Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre and adapted for radio as part of the BBC Lights Up season, weaves together the story of the infamous court case and that of Gustavus Vassa, against a background of the social and political ferment of the Age of Enlightenment.

The case itself (reported as Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug KB 232; 99 ER 629) is a dramatic and shocking one, readily demonstrating the tension between law and justice — between a system of rules designed to regulate the commercial world, upon which the wealth of nations depended, and the desire for justice in the individual case and the protection of what might now be thought of as human rights. The court’s decision — that the claim was in principle a good one, but vitiated in this case by wrongful conduct of the ship’s crew — might be thought to have satisfied both, or achieved some kind of compromise between law and morality; but it can equally be read as a simple vindication of a good defence in commercial litigation, with no moral judgment on the institution of slavery. In that sense, it is far less of a precedent than Somersett’s case (Somerset v Stewart (1772) 20 St Tr 1, 98 ER 499) an earlier decision of Lord Mansfield in which he had held that there was no basis for slavery in English law and refused to allow a runaway slave to be handed back to his purported owners.

Other artistic treatments of the Zong case have focused on the role of Lord Mansfield, for two reasons. First, because he had previously decided Somersett’s case; and second because he had, living in his house at the time of the Zong case, a great niece by the name of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the natural daughter of his nephew, Captain Sir John Lindsay and a former slave by the name of Maria Bell. Her role in the story was the subject of the film Belle, which I recently wrote about here: Belle: life, love and the law in an age of slavery and prejudice

As a play, The Meaning of Zong is less concerned with the character of Lord Mansfield and more with the participants in the case, the evidence of what happened on the ship, and the efforts of Granville Sharp and other abolitionists to prosecute the ship’s owners and crew for murder. Woven into the narrative of the case, is that of the personal history of Gustavus Vassa and the recovery of his original name, Olaudah Equiano. He went on to become a leading figure in the black abolitionist movement and wrote his autobiography.

While I knew something of Lord Mansfield and his legacy as a legal reformer, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about the abolitionist movement of the time, and its leading figures. The performance was lively and lost nothing by depending entirely on audio. It remains available as a BBC download for another fortnight or so.

Turner’s painting The Slave Ship, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhon coming on, is said to have been inspired by the case of The Zong. It was painted some decades later, being first exhibited in 1840, while international abolitionist campaigns were still being conducted, though earlier legislation (including Slave Trade Acts of 1807 and 1824) had already sought to suppress slavery within the British empire.


In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and, just last week, the publication of the report of the Sewell Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, it seems more important than ever to try to understand the history of what on any view must be characterised as a crime against humanity. Recognition and acknowledgement of that fact is not the end of the matter, but the question of how we continue to address the consequences is not something for which there is an obvious or simple solution. The Sewell Report urges us to avoid fatalistic or pessimistic narratives and even to look for something positive and enriching in the Caribbean and British experience that has grown out of the slave trade, but that no doubt well-meant suggestion has been howlingly rejected as complacently optimistic by those who feel the enormity of the crime calls for a more comprehensive and enduring reckoning. Whether the destruction or removal of statues and memorials celebrating the philanthropic acts of those enriched by this great crime will be enough seems doubtful. The report is not primarily concerned with righting ancient wrongs, so much as with curing the current causes of disparity and discrimination in the treatment of all minorities, and with avoiding a simplistic binary analysis of racial disadvantage by seeking to adopt a more granular and subtle approach to the factors that promote or hinder economic and social achievement among different ethnic groups. It rejects the catch-all classification of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) and urges caution in attributing the over-used label of “institutional racism” to organisations lest it encourage a fatalistic (and ultimately counterproductive) pessimism of attitude both in the institution itself and in those who see themselves as ineluctably victimised thereby. All this makes sense, but a lot depends on how the report’s recommendations are implemented and whether the government supports it or merely exploits the whole exercise as a way of avoiding any more determined (and well funded) remedial action. Given the lack of progress, four years later, in implementing the Lammy Report of 2017, one might be entitled to fear the latter.



Paul Magrath

I'm Head of Product Development and Online Content at ICLR - the leading supplier of law reports for England and Wales.