1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

7 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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1781: Tupac Amaru II, Incan insurgent

3 comments May 18th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, the last name in Incan rebellion met a horrible end in the ancient Incan capital of Cusco.

José Gabriel Condorcanqui — rechristened Tupac Amaru II, as he was a distant descendant of the last Incan king — was a member of the privileged indigenous population depended upon by the Spanish to administer the forced and extorted labor that made its New World empire worth having.

Condorcanqui evidently had an epiphany.

In November 1780, he launched a well-planned rebellion by engineering the public execution of a hated corregidor Antonio de Arriaga at the hands of his own servant.

“From this day, no longer shall the Spanish feast on your poverty!”

This attention-grabbing entry onto the political chessboard was followed with an exemplary victory over Spanish forces. His revolt rapidly metastasized into an ethno-religious crusade, with all the accumulated bitterness of the Indians’ two-plus centuries maltreatment ferociously visited upon the Spanish.

It was a heady moment — but only a moment; within a few months, the Spanish had rallied and Tupac Amaru was betrayed into their hands.

The rebel had seized Incan symbology for his own purposes — speaking at ancient shrines, for instance — and the Spanish sentence against him included not only the inevitably horrific execution (of both Tupac Amaru and his wife and family) but a comprehensive and explicit programme of cultural annihilation to consign the Incan identity to the past. This lengthy sentence is well worth the read. (Sourced here, a pdf file; the bolded sections are my highlights.)

I must and do condemn José G. Túpac Amaru to be taken out to the main public square of [Cuzco], dragged out to the place of execution, where he shall witness the execution of the sentences imposed on his wife, Micaela Bastidas [Spanish link]; his two sons, Hipólito and Fernando Túpac Amaru; his uncle, Francisco Túpac Amaru; and his brother-in-law, Antonio Bastidas, as well as some of the principal captains and aides in his iniquitous and perverse intent or project, all of whom must die on the same day.

And once these sentences have been carried out, the executioner will cut out his tongue, and he will then be tied or bound by strong cords on each one of his arms and feet in such a way that each rope can be easily tied or fastened to others hanging from t he saddle straps of four horses, so that, in this position, each one of these horses, facing opposite corners of the square, will pull toward his own direction; and let the horses be urged or jolted into motion at the same time so that his body be divided into as many parts and then, once it is done, the parts should be carried to the hill or high ground known as “Picchu,” which is where he came to intimidate, lay siege to, and demand the surrender of this city; and let there be lit a fire which shall be prepared in advance and then let ashes be thrown into the air and a stone tablet placed there detailing his main crimes and manner of his death as the only record and statement of his loathsome action.

His head will be sent to the town of Tinta where, after being three days on the gallows, it shall be placed on a stake at the most public entrance to the town, one of his arms will go to the town of Tungasuca, where he was chief, where it will be treated in like manner, and the other in the capital of the province of Carabaya; one of the legs shall likewise be sent for the same kind of demonstration to the town of Libitaca in the province of Chumbilcas, while the remaining one shall go to Santa Rosa in the province of Lampa along with the affidavit and order to the respective chief magistrates, or territorial judges that this sentence be proclaimed publicly with the greatest solemnity as soon as it arrives in their hands, and on the same day every year thereafter; and they will give notice in writing of this to their superiors in government who are familiar with the said territories.

Since this traitor managed to arm himself and form an army and forces against the royal arms by making use of or seducing and leading with his falsehood the chiefs who are the second in command in the villages, since these villages, being of Indians, are not governed by such chiefs but rather by mayors who are elected annually by the vote or nomination of the chiefs: let these same electoral communities and the chief magistrates that care to give preference to candidates who know Spanish, and who are of the best behavior, reputation, and customs so that they will treat their subjects well and lovingly, honoring only those who have demonstrated honestly their inclination and faithfulness, eagerness, respect, obedience, submission, and gratitude to the greater glory of our great Monarch through the sacrificed of their lives, properties, or ranches in deference of their country or religion, receiving with brave disdain the threats and offers of the aforesaid reel leader and his military chiefs, yet taking care that these elected leaders are the only ones with the right to the title of chief or governor of their ayllus [communities] or towns, and that they cannot transmit their position to their children or other family members.

To this same end, it is prohibited that the Indians wear heathen clothes, especially those who belong to the nobility, since it only serves to symbolize those worn by their Inca ancestors, reminding them of memories which serve no other end than to increase their hatred toward the dominant nation; not to mention that their appear is ridiculous and very little in accordance with the purity of our relics, since they place in different parts images of the sun, which was their primary deity; and this prohibition is to be extended to all the provinces of this southern America, in order to completely eliminate such clothing, especially those items which represent the bestialities of their heathen kings through emblems such and the unco, which is a kind of vest; yacollas, which are very rich blankets or shawls of black velvet or taffeta; the macapaycha, which is a circle in the shape of a crown from which they hand a certain emblem of ancient nobility signified by a tuft or tassel of red-colored alpaca wool, as well as many other things of this kind and symbolism. All of this shall be proclaimed in writing in each province, that they dispose of or surrender to the magistrates whatever clothing of this kind exists in the province, as well as all the paintings or likenesses of their Incas which are extremely abundant in the houses of the Indians who consider themselves to be nobles and who use them to prove their claim or boast of their lineage.

These latter shall be erased without fail since they do not merit the dignity of being painted in such places, and with the same end in mind there shall also be erased, so that no sign remains, any portraits that might be found on walls or other solid objects; in churches, monasteries, hospitals, holy places or private homes, such duties fall under the jurisdiction of the reverend archbishops or bishops of both viceroyalties in those areas pertaining to the churches; and in their place it would be best to replace such adornments with images of the King and our other Catholic sovereigns should that be necessary. Also, the ministers and chief magistrates should ensure that in no town of their respective provinces be performed plays or other public functions of the kind that the Indians are accustomed to put on to commemorate their former Incas; and having carried out the order, these ministers shall give a certified account to the secretaries of the respective governments. In like manner shall be prohibited and confiscated the trumpets or bugles that the Indians use for their ceremonies and which they call pututos, being seashells with a strange and mournful sound that celebrate the mourning and pitiful memorial they make for their antiquity; and there shall also be prohibited the custom of using or wearing black clothing as a sign of mourning, a custom that drags on in some provinces in memory of their deceased monarchs and also of the day or time of the conquest which they consider disastrous and we consider fortunate since it brought them into the company of the Catholic Church and the very loving and gentle domination of our Kings.

With the same goal it is absolutely forbidden that the Indians sign themselves as “Incas,” since it is a title that anyone can assume but which makes a lasting impression on those of their class; and it is ordered, as is required of all those who have genealogical trees or documents that prove in some way their descent, that they produce them or send them certified and without cost by mail to the respective secretaries of both viceroyalties so that the formalities may be observed by those persons responsible to their excellencies the viceroys, consulting His Majesty where necessary according to each case; and the chief magistrates are charged to oversee the fulfillment of such requirements, to seek out and discover anyone who does not observe them correctly, in order to have it done to collect the documents with the aim of sending them to the proper authorities after giving their owners a receipt.

And so that these Indians renounce the hatred that they have conceived against the Spaniards, and that they adhere to the dress which the laws indicate, adopting our Spanish customs and speaking Castilian [Spanish], we shall introduce more vigorously than we have done up to now the use of schools, imposing the most rigorous and fair penalties on those who do not attend once enough time has passed for them to have learned the language; the duties and responsibilities involved in this plan going to the very reverend ecclesiastical prelates so that, in the opposition between parishes and doctrinas, they take care that those candidates bring affidavits from the provincial judges as to the numbers of people who speak the Said Castilian in those provinces … it being left up to the sovereign discretion of His Majesty to reward and honor those towns whose inhabitants have rendered, under the present circumstances, their due loyalty and faithfulness.

Finally, the manufacture of cannons of all kinds shall be prohibited under the penalty that any noble found manufacturing such items will be sentenced to ten years of prison in one of the presidios in Africa and any commoner will receive two hundred lashes as well as the same penalty for the same time period; reserving for a future time a similar resolution with regards to the manufacture of powder. And since there cannons of almost every caliber in the many ore-crushing mills and timber yards in these provinces, they will be gathered up by the magistrates once of the pacification of this uprising has been completely terminated in order to give account of them to the respective captaincy general so that he may determine whatever use he deems proper for them. Thus have I visualized, ordered, and signed: this is my final judgment.

José Antonio de Areche.

Tupac Lives.

The Spanish campaign to eradicate his name and identity didn’t exactly have legs.

The savagery of the crackdown helped generate Incan support for the rebellions that would shake off Spanish authority in the generations to come. He entered the official iconography of the post-colonial state, and can be found on Peruvian currency.

The very name Tupac Amaru became pregnant with the spirit of resistance — both in Peru, where it was adopted by a 1990’s revolutionary movement, and abroad, where a New York City Black Panther activist (pdf) gave the name to a son: Tupac Amaru Shakur.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain,Torture,Treason

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1781: John Donellan, Esq.

1 comment April 2nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, John Donellan was hanged for murdering his brother-in-law to secure an inheritance.

JOHN DONELLAN had been a captain in the army, and was the son of Colonel Donellan. He certainly distinguished himself as a good soldier, for not only had he been much wounded in the service, but, if his own account may be credited, he was singularly instrumental in the taking of Mazulapatam. … In June, 1777, he married Miss Boughton; and on Friday, 30th of March, 1781, he was tried at the assizes at Warwick for the wilful murder of Sir Theodosius Edward Allesley Boughton, Bart., his brother-in-law.

… Sir Theodosius was twenty years old on the 3rd of August past. On his coming of age he would have been entitled to above two thousand pounds a year, and in the event of his dying a minor the greater part of his fortune was to descend to his sister, the wife of Mr Donellan. It was known in the family on the evening of Tuesday, the 26th that Sir Theodosius was to take his physic the next morning. … As he was taking it he observed that it smelled and tasted very nauseous; upon which [his mother, Lady Boughton] said: “I think it smells very strongly like bitter almonds.” He then remarked that he thought he should not be able to keep the medicine upon his stomach.

Here a bottle was delivered to Lady Boughton containing the genuine draught, which she was desired to smell, and inform the Court whether it smelled like the medicine Sir Theodosius took. She answered in the negative. She was then desired to smell another containing the draught, with the addition of laurel-water, which she said had a smell very much like that of the medicine she gave to Sir Theodosius. … Two minutes after Sir Theodosius had taken the draught he struggled very much. It appeared to her as if it was to keep the draught down. He made a prodigious rattling in his stomach, and guggling …

She saw Mr Donellan less than five minutes after. … he asked her where the physic bottle was; on which she showed him two draughts; when he took up one of the bottles and said, “Is this it?” she answered, “Yes.” He then rinsed it, and emptied it into some dirty water that was in a washhand-basin; and on his doing so she said: “What are you at? You should not meddle with the bottles.” Upon that he snatched up the other bottle and rinsed it …

We omit the forensic testimony presented to confirm that the victim was indeed poisoned.

As well as the latter-day observer can tell, we have a guilty — and fairly clumsy — poisoner after his brother-in-law’s boodle.

We’ll never know the answer, but the Newgate author hints at other family members who might have had the same means, motive and opportunity … like Donellan’s wife:

[Lady Boughton] soon afterwards went into the parlour, where she found Mr and Mrs Donellan; and the former told his wife that her mother had been pleased to take notice of his washing the bottles, and that he did not know what he should have done if he had not thought of saying that he had put the water into them to put his finger to it to taste.

Lady Boughton’s just full of evidence! Don’t suppose she could have had anything to gain, hmm? Let’s ask a jailhouse snitch:

John Darbyshire deposed that he had been a prisoner in Warwick jail for debt, and that Mr Donellan and he had had a bed in the same room for a month or five weeks. He remembered to have had a conversation with him about Sir Theodosius being poisoned. On his asking him whether the body was poisoned or not, he said there was no doubt of it. The witness said: “For God’s sake, Captain, who could do it?” He answered it was amongst themselves; he had no hand in it. The witness asked whom he meant by themselves. He said: “Sir Theodosius himself, Lady Boughton, the footman and the apothecary.” The witness replied, “Sure, Sir Theodosius could not do it himself!” He said he did not think he did — he could not believe he would. The witness answered: “The apothecary could hardly do it — he would lose a good patient; the footman could have no interest in it; and it is unnatural to suppose that Lady Boughton would do it.” The Captain said how covetous Lady Boughton was: she had received an anonymous letter the day after Sir Theodosius’s death charging her plump with poisoning him; that she called him and read it to him, and trembled. She desired he would not let his wife know of that letter, and asked him if he would give up his right to the personal estate, and to some estates of about two hundred pounds a year belonging to the family. The conversation was about a month after the Captain came into the jail. At other times he said that it was impossible he could do a thing that never was in his power.

Stranger things have happened, but it sounds like a weak attempt to set mom up; it sounded weak to the jury, too.

At seven o’clock on the next day, the 2nd of April, 1781, he was carried to the place of execution at Warwick, in a mourning-coach, followed by a hearse and the sheriff officers in deep mourning. As he went on he frequently put his head out of the coach, desiring the prayers of the people around him.

On his arrival at the fatal spot he alighted from the coach and, ascending a few steps of the ladder, prayed for a considerable time, and then joined in the usual service with the greatest appearance of devotion; he next, in an audible tone of voice, addressed the spectators to this effect: that as he was then going to appear before God, to Whom all deceit was known, he solemnly declared that he was innocent of the crime for which he was to suffer; that he had drawn up a vindication of himself, which he hoped the world would believe, for it was of more consequence to him to speak truth than falsehood, and he had no doubt but that time would reveal the many mysteries that had arisen in his trial.

After praying fervently some time he let his handkerchief fall — a signal agreed upon between him and the executioner — and was launched into eternity. When the body had hung the usual time it was put into a black coffin and conveyed to the town hall to be dissected.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Public Executions

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1781: Mutinous ringleaders of the New Jersey line

2 comments January 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1781, George Washington quelled a dangerous mutiny in his starving Continental Army with a couple of salutary summary executions.

Weeks before, the Pennsylvania Line had mutinied for better pay — successfully. (When approached by British agents offering hard currency should they turn coat, the mutinous troops patriotically arrested the agents.)

General Washington had cause to fear widespread discontent in his chronically undersupplied army, however. He circulated to Congress and to several state governors an urgent appeal (.pdf) for more aid to hold up morale.

The aggravated calamities and distresses that have resulted from the total want of pay for nearly twelve months, the want of clothing at a severe season, and not unfrequently the want of provisions, are beyond description … it is vain to think an army can be kept together much longer under such a variety of sufferings as ours has experienced … unless some immediate and spirited measures are adopted to furnish at least three months’ pay to the troops in money, which will be of some value to them, and at the same time ways and means are devised to clothe and feed them better … the worst that can befall us may be expected.

Washington vowed in the meantime to “continue to exert every means I am possessed of to prevent an extension of the mischief.”

The mischief, however, extended.

The New Jersey line at Pompton imitated — and the imitation was reportedly explicit — the Pennsylvania line. They had legitimate grievances, like nearly everyone in the Continental Army, and that was precisely the problem: if mutiny became the means to resolve grievances, Washington wouldn’t have a Continental Army much longer.

Washington detailed Gen. Robert Howe to make an example.

Sir: You are to take the command of the detachment, which has been ordered to march from this post against the mutineers of the Jersey line. You will rendezvous the whole of your command at Ringwood or Pompton as you find best from circumstances. The object of your detachment is to compel the mutineers to unconditional submission, and I am to desire you will grant no terms while they are with arms in their hands in a state of resistance. The manner of executing this I leave to your discretion according to circumstances. If you succeed in compelling the revolted troops to a surrender you will instantly execute a few of the most active and most incendiary leaders.

And as Washington reported this afternoon to New Jersey Governor William Livingstonsuccess.

Dr. Sir: I have the pleasure to inform your Excellency, that the measures concerted for quelling the mutiny in the Jersey line were this morning carried into full execution. The mutineers were unexpectedly surrounded and awed into an unconditional surrender with little hesitation and no resistance. Two of the principal actors were executed on the spot, the rest pardonned. The spirit of mutiny seems now to have completely subsided and to have given place to a genuine repentance. This was very far from being the case previous to this step, notwithstanding the apparent submission which the assurances of redress had produced; they still continued insolent and refractory and disobedient to the commands of their officers.

A general pardon was promised by Colonel Dayton, on condition of an immediate and full return to duty. This condition was not performed on the part of the mutineers and of course they were not entitled to the benefit of the promise; besides which the existence of the Army called for an example. I have the honor etc.

That second paragraph of the letter hints at a bit of ass-covering from Washington. The officer on the scene, Elias Dayton, had, according to Charles Patrick Neimeyer, already smoothed the disturbance by promising that a state commission would adjudicate discharge claims.

The placated “mutineers” were therefore surprised to be roused from their beds at Ringwood, N.J., by Howe’s forces and forced to form a firing squad to execute their own sergeants. (Neimeyer also claims that the first six-man squad intentionally missed.)

This in-the-field execution to enforce military discipline was a precedent later cited by Alexander Mackenzie to justify hanging Philip Spencer, Samuel Cromwell and Elisha Small at sea for mutiny.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Known But To God,Military Crimes,New Jersey,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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