Finance vs. Power – Zong!

Zong! is a poetry book written by M. NourbeSe Philip. It entails the story of the planned murder of slaves that were being transported on the slave ship Zong. The massacre was to be done in order to collect insurance money. The ship was setting sail from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. It held a cargo of 470 slaves.

On page 189, when introducing the massacre, the sentence is structured as such: “Some of Zong’s cargo is lost through illness and lack of water; many others, by order of the captain are destroyed: Sixty negroes died for want of water… and forty others…through thirst and frenzy…threw themselves into the sea and were drowned; and the master and mariners…were obliged to throw overboard 150 other negroes”. It continues in the next paragraph to say “Captain Luke Collingwood is of the belief that if the African slaves on board die of a natural death, the owners of the ship will have to bear the cost, but if they were ‘thrown alive into the sea’, it would be the loss of the underwriters”. To summarize, this means that by massacring the slaves aboard the ship, there would be a financial benefit to the ship owners.

Now, in this paragraph, the slaves being transported are described as “cargo”, which is a term used to describe goods carried on a ship. Given the time period (November of 1781), it’s common knowledge that Africans were treated as property and sold as slaves. It also states on page 194, “The African men, women, and children on board the Zong were stripped of all specificity, including their names. Their financial value, however, was recorded and preserved for insurance purposes, each being valued 30 pounds sterling”. In the United States monetary system, this equals almost forty U.S. dollars. If you flip through the book, the first thing that will catch your eye is the irregular, almost spasmodic positioning of the words on the pages. Could have this been done in order to replicate the feeling of drowning? Given the background information, the arrangement of words on each page could be made to simulate the feeling of drowning- losing air, hope, and eventually, the loss of life.

Anyways, reading through this, I began to wonder if the same thing would have happened if there were no slaves on the ship, but rather white people. This question seems almost illogical, given that Africans were sold and insured as property. However, the slaves were being transported on the ship in order to be bought; in other words, they were on the ship for a reason. So, if this were truly for financial gain, would it have been the same if the passengers were all white? Or would it simply be a tragic massacre, never to be published into the story that Zong! is? If you think it would not be the same if the slaves were white, do you think this massacre was partly done for the ship owners to exercise their power over the slaves?


  1. How do you imagine this event would have occurred if the slaves were white?
  2. Do you think this massacre was done solely for the financial benefit, or do you think it could have been done to exercise power?

5 thoughts on “Finance vs. Power – Zong!”

  1. Hey Taylor, good job analyzing the text! I personally struggled with the text and following the poems. But I do believe that they killed the slaves for money and to stay alive. Once the ship started to run low on resources, they threw the slaves over so there would be enough for them. They also purchased life insurance for each slave so if they did kill anyone, they would make their money back. It is truly an unfortunate event. On page 191 she even explains that the murdering of these slaves wasn’t considered murder due to being “property”, …given the law at that time, neitherCaptain Collingwood nor those who had helped in the massacre could be charged with murder, since what was destroyed, being property, was not capable of being murdered.” It is another case of inhuman actions done by white supremacists.

  2. Hey Taylor! I enjoyed reading you analyze the text. I was extremely lost when reading the poems and I had to go back, slow down and ask myself why the text was being written in the way that it was written. I know (not believe) that the massacre was done for profit. Power is their goal as well to control the situation, but they did anything they could to keep their profit going. It says on page 191, “An accurate interpretation of the contract of insurance, according to the owners of the Zong, that is, would result in great financial benefit to them: they would be paid for murdering 150 Africans. At the same time, it would mean that the deliberate drowning of 150 people was not murder, but merely the disposition of property in a time of emergency to ensure the preservation of the rest of the “cargo” — a reasonable interpretation at that time given the law governing contracts of insurance.” That means they could still be compensated because they had to get rid of stuff to save the other “important things.” It went on to say that even if they weren’t compensated for the murdering of the Africans, they still could dodge being arrested because what they destroyed was not a human life, but property.

  3. Hey Taylor, I enjoyed reading your analysis of the text. To answer your second question I 100% do believe that the massacre was done solely for financial benefit. I don’t think they needed to exercise their power because I think it already proved it by kidnapping these African Americans and bringing them to different countries. On page 189 it says, “In other words the massacre of the African slaves would prove to be more advantageous to the owners of the ship and its cargo than if the slaves were allowed to die of “natural causes.” This quote proves that they would be better off massacring the slaves solely for the financial benefits, and it would be better than letting them die from “natural causes”.

  4. Hey Taylor, I really enjoyed your blog post. I think your second question is a really good question. I think it hits both your sides. Back then white slave owners didn’t really give a crap about their property(black people). I think back then white slave owners would do anything to make money off blacks even if it meant sacrificing human lives. I think this demostrates power and greed. These white slave owners did this because they knew they could get away with it. No one cared about blacks back then besides blacks and thats the unfortunate, sad, truth about society back then. The boat held over 450 slaves, whats 150 deaths to them they will gain it back with insurance they had bought for them. They knew what they were doing and its sad that these men will get away with such a heinous act of violence and terror. On page 189-190 is precisely discusses that the massacre of the slaves would be more beneficial to them and their cargo than if they were able to die of natural causes. Which basically means the deaths of these humans is less important than their cargo.

  5. Hey, I really liked your blog post. I think the massacre was done for the financial gain of it. I don’t think they needed to exercise their power, I think it was already clear who had the power in the situation. On page 189 it says, “the massacre of the African slaves would prove to be more financially advantageous to the owners of the ship and its cargo than if the slaves were allowed to die of ‘natural causes.'” It’s impossible for me to think about people throwing living, breathing human beings off a boat and leaving them stranded in the ocean just to make some money. It is one of the most heartless acts I have read about in a while.

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