Four Hours a Slave: AUP Addresses the Zong Massacre

Professor Michelle Kuo (yellow) seated as judge, advocates for the slavers on her left and advocates for the insurers on her left. Image Credits: Khadija Sanusi.
Can Professor Michelle Kuo’s class rewrite history?

On Monday the 26th of March, 2018, Professor Michelle Kuo’s ‘The Historical Foundations of Law class had a mock trial. It addressed the 1781 massacre of slaves on the Zong ship that was traveling from Ghana to Jamaica. Just like the original, the mock trial was a court case between the slavers and the insurance company. But like Professor Michelle Kuo announced at the beginning of the event, the AUP court was not so much a recreation of the original but a “creative reenactment.”

During the AUP trial, the insurance company argued that there was negligence on the slavers’ part as the captain and crew members lacked experience on how to run a ship. This negligence allegedly led to them throwing slaves off the ship as cargo. They supported their argument by showing pieces of evidence to the court to prove that there was an error in their navigation and that they boarded more people than the ship could carry without adequate supplies. There were also questions about the captain’s mental health. The slavers, on the other hand, argued that the insurers owed them money because all the slaves were insured beforehand. They claimed that the slaves who thrown away as cargo were lost property and demanded a refund.

In addition to the lawyers, the AUP court also invited several witnesses. There were two crew members, a doctor, the captain of the ship, an insurance underwriter, and Black River customs office located in Jamaica. In addition to this, the jury was presented with testimonies from Christopher Codrington and Odion Ayo.

During the trial, Laura Moreano testified as a slave – Odion Ayo – who was on the Zong ship from Africa to the Americas. “My life was simple until one day I got kidnaped by a group of white men,” Laura said. On the slave ship, he was not only mistreated but had to witness his sister being thrown overboard with other slaves who were considered “too sick” or “close to dying.” His testimony came from a genuine place of hurt and determination as he spoke against the slavers, arguing that they should not receive insurance for the slaves they threw off the ship.

A crew member being examined by a lawyer from the insurers’ side. Image Credits: Khadija Sanusi.

Laura is currently a senior at AUP majoring in International and Comparative Politics and minoring in International Law. She got her character inspiration from the testimonial memoir of Olaudah Equino. They were both Nigerians and just like Olaudah, Odion was taken through the middle passage on the slave ship’s journey to the New World. That was the first time he had ever seen the ocean. They both remember slaves being forced to run on the upper deck, describing the machinery that was used to keep their mouths open so that food could be forced down their throats.

Her creative reenactment shipped Odion to Virginia to work for a man who worked in a textile store while Olaudah was there to weed grass; Odion was kidnaped as a young adult while Olaudah was a child when he was kidnaped and sold into slavery; Odion had a sister with him on the ship. From the small windows, he witnessed slaves being thrown off the boat.

“I was on the side of the insurers. They should not pay for the ‘loss cargo’,” Laura said, adding that, “These were humans and not objects. The way they threw these people to the Atlantic was horrifying.”

When this case was tried before the acting Judge, Professor Michelle Kuo, the insurers won the case. However, in 1781, the slavers won. They argued that it was not a question of murder or morality, but a case of property and insurance. John Lee, the lawyer who argued on behalf of the slavers, said, “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 honorable 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.”

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