”A Very Uncommon Case”: Representing the Slave Ship, Zong in British Abolition, 1783-1821
Rupprecht, Anita (2007) ”A Very Uncommon Case”: Representing the Slave Ship, Zong in British Abolition, 1783-1821 Journal of Legal history, 28 (3). pp. 1-18. ISSN 01440365
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Ruprecht’s text developed from her contribution to an international symposium held in 2006 organised by the law departments of City University, University College and the London Legal History Seminar, notably with submissions from legal historians, literary and cultural critics and historical archaeologists challenging existing methodologies. This outcome was published in a special edition of the Journal of Legal History devoted to the legal and cultural history of transatlantic slavery and the slave trade, the primary research focus being provided by the case of the slave-ship Zong that came to the Court of the King’s Bench in 1783. While the story of the Zong, in which a slave captain jettisoned 133 slaves in order to make an insurance claim, is well-known within slavery and abolition historiography, the case itself has not been fully researched to date despite the fact that unpublished proceedings of the trial are lodged at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The research addresses the significance of the case for the formal abolitionist campaign that developed in the 1780s. It combines historical and cultural contextualisation with close textual analysis in order to trace the ways in which the case produced an iconic narrative for the movement. The essay pays particular attention to the original accounting of the event as it was heard in the court, and then to the ways in which the latter was transformed in key abolition propaganda documents. It argues that the legal implications of the trial fell away as the Zong was both appropriated and mythologised, in its adaptation to the requirements of the abolitionist’s sentimental and humanitarian agenda. In reconfiguring and interpreting the raw material of the Zong case in an innovative and interdisciplinary context, this essay offers scholars a distinctive contribution to the existing field of abolitionist history.
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