Anti-slavery and the case Gregson

The case of Gregson v Gilbert is a well-known case about a slave ship named the Zong which was carrying African slaves. It is infamously remembered for the ‘classification’ of the slaves merely as ‘goods’ rather than human beings. It was a landmark case in relation to opposition of the slave trade, another similar case being the case of Somerset v Stewart[1]. As mentioned above, the Zong was a slave ship carrying African slaves. The ship was overcrowded and was carrying more slaves than its capacity could hold.

The ship was travelling from Africa to Jamaica. After losing direction and due to a lack of water, a number of slaves died due to their yearn for water, whilst other slaves were thrown overboard. However it was held that these facts did not match a statement in the declaration. This statement claimed that due to the nature of the seas, strong currents and winds, the ship lost its way. It claimed that due to this, the majority of water was used up and some of the slaves died for the need of water.

The other slaves were then thrown overboard, apparently to preserve what was left of the remaining water. It was claimed within the declaration that before the ship reached its destination of Jamaica; a sufficient amount of water did not remain on the ship, in order for the captain, his crew and the slaves to survive. Sixty slaves died for the need of water, forty other slaves who also needed water threw themselves overboard as a result of madness or frenzy. In order to make the most of the water and make it last, the captain and his crew threw overboard 150 more slaves.

It was presumed that these actions were due to an insurance policy which covered ‘goods’ that were lost at sea, which in this case was the slaves. It was believed that the excuse of water shortage on the ship was used in order to throw the slaves overboard to recover financial value which some of them may have possessed. However it was held that a new trial be held as a ‘sufficient necessity’ did not exist for throwing the slaves overboard and that the loss was not mentioned in the insurance policy. The three judges, namely Davenport, Piggott and Heywood gave their support for a new trial.

They stated that there was no ‘sufficient necessity’ for throwing the slaves over as there were three ‘butts’ of water and two and a half of sour water when the first slaves were thrown overboard. Also after a short period, it also rained which replenished water for eleven days. So it was clear to see that the slaves were not thrown overboard due to the strong winds and currents of the sea, but instead from negligence on part of the captain. For this reason the owners of the ship were liable not the insurers. It was also stated that the ship did not have the water it could have potentially held when it left Africa.

It also passed Tobago and a number of other islands where it could have stopped to obtain water. The declaration stated that the ship was damaged, foul and made leaky due to the nature of the strong winds and currents of the sea which caused the initial loss of direction. However there was no evidence shown that the sea reduced them to this necessity. In actual fact the captain attempted to gain the full value of the slaves by throwing them overboard after discovering they may not have been redeemable for a good price.

The policy however only covered the death of slaves under enemies and perils of the sea. It did not cover the general death of slaves. However there were also arguments that were presented that supported the claimant’s case. For example it is was stated by Lee, S. G. and Chambre that it had been decided that the slaves be considered as goods, so therefore this case was a throwing overboard of goods in order to save others. It was stated that the voyage was eighteen weeks instead of six, and due to strong winds it was not possible for the ship to reach Jamaica within three weeks.

It was said that it may have possible to obtain water from Tobago but this would have only been possible if the currents were not as strong as they were. The throwing overboard of the first slaves was justified as a necessity as seven of the crew themselves died before reaching Jamaica. There was also no evidence that any slaves were thrown overboard after it rained. It was also not the fact that the slaves were thrown overboard for financial gain from the insurers. Around forty or fifty slaves died, and thirty were lying dead when the ship reached Jamaica.

However another perspective was then taken, stating this was not a loss that could be claimed through the policy. This was because it was stated in the declaration that the ship was “retarded by perils of the seas, and contrary winds and currents and other misfortunes, whereby the Negroes died for want of sustenance. ” This means that the ship was damaged by the rough conditions of the sea and weather and other events which occurred, thereby causing the slaves to die for want of water. It was shown that the loss was caused initially by the conditions of the sea.

Lord Mansfield stated that the case deserved reconsideration, as the evidence did not match the declaration. There was no evidence that the ship was foul and leaky and there may have been evidence to that slaves were thrown overboard after the period of rain. If this was so, then it would mean there was no necessity in the case. It was stated there should be a new trial under the grounds of reconsideration on the payment of costs. Justice Willes held the same opinion. Justice Buller stated that the reason for delay was not the same as stated in the declaration.

He stated that the murder indictments did not apply in circumstances such as these. He held that the loss caused by the negligence of the captain of the ship should not be put upon the underwriters or insurers. This was because the peril attempting to be claimed was not stated in the declaration, therefore would not appear on record not to have been within the policy. He stated that a loss caused by the negligence of the captain did not discharge the insurers, but the captain failed to raise this point.

In conclusion, after taking into account the relevant facts and issues regarding this case, one may become opinionated that this case was not rightly decided. This was because; the main issue regarding this case was the treatment and ‘labelling’ of the slaves involved. This case obviously raises moral issues, as would any slave case in present day judgement. However one should be mindful that this case took place when slave trading was considered a lucrative business to many people within England.

Nevertheless the issue that arises in this case was that the human lives of the slaves were not taken into account, as if they had no meaning and were of no relevance whatsoever. In both proceedings, this issue of human life was regarded irrelevant and ignored throughout. No charges of murder or even any other criminal offence were brought against the captain and his crew who behaved in this malicious and inhumane manner. The slaves were not treated as human beings but instead treated as goods or material possession.

The overlooking of the deaths of the slaves by the judges may lead one to believe that the lives of the slaves, especially black African slaves were not valued, instead the judges focused on whether the captain was eligible to receive payments for the overthrown slaves. This shows one that the financial value was more important than the human value. However this was the social norm within this time period in regards to slavery, and the judges on the other hand can be seen as just doing what they are supposed to be doing, which was deciding the outcome of the case.

This would be correct if one assumes that the lives of the slaves had no relevance and did not make a difference to the case. As mentioned earlier, this case was a number of cases which influenced or created awareness for the abolition of the slave trade in England. Another case that illustrated slavery in relation to recovering value for slaves was Butts v Penny. [2] Fortunately nowadays within the law, there are specific acts and rights of individuals which may prevent such instances from occurring again, such as the Human Rights Act. However one cannot deny that slavery still exists in certain parts of the world even in the present day.