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Lord Mansfield and the Slave Ship Zong

Mansfield Park is one of Jane Austen’s least popular works, led by a heroine that lacks the wit and pizazz of Austen’s much beloved Lizzy Bennet.  Instead, the author’s third novel offers readers a meek young woman named Fanny Price, narrating her transition from an impoverished early childhood to life on the estate of her mother’s wealthy relatives, the Bertrams.  While Fanny experiences some of the material benefits of her new surroundings and develops a shared affection with her beloved cousin Edmund, she also experiences abuse, maltreatment usually accompanied by a veneer of class prejudice.  For Fanny, the absence of wealth becomes the subtext of almost all of her interactions, even in spaces that should represent the safety of home and family.

Over the course of the novel, we learn that Fanny’s uncle’s Antiguan slave plantation is the means by which the Bertram family covers their estate and family expenses.  This essay explores the novel’s primary geographical contexts—the Bertrams’ Mansfield estate and the Caribbean plantation responsible for its support—as an authorial subtext gesturing at a specific period in English commercial and legal history.  This history, anchored to the name “Mansfield,” represents more than a coincidental point of convergence between the name of an eighteenth-century magistrate and the eponymous estate of a nineteenth-century novel.  More specially, I aim to push past the more familiar associations with the historical Mansfield—his ruling in the James Somerset case, regarding an enslaved man’s legal status on English soil—and examine the more notorious and relevant legal case that, by virtue of Austen’s creative decisions, attaches to Mansfield Park

This argument is, of course, predicated on the explicitness—or not—of Austen’s references to slavery, conceptualized concretely (humans, ships, plantations) or theoretically (as a contested commercial and legal system).  The sum total of any such references can be distilled to a four-sentence exchange between Fanny and Edmund on the occasion of her uncle’s return from Antigua. 

“Did you not hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?” 

“I did—and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others.  It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.” 

“And I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence!”  (231) 

In the context of this exchange, we come to understand the obvious tension that keeps Fanny from pursuing it any further.  With abolitionists stirring up trouble and the family’s financial future on the line, a more convivial or accommodating Sir Thomas would seem out of place.  Alas, if only we could retroactively reassure him and the rest of the Bertrams that the trade in question would, for his purposes, remain safe and legal until 1833, some of that tension might have been laid to rest.  Like Austen’s contemporary readers, however, Sir Thomas had only the English present and past as points of reference.  So, we are left to wonder, what elements of the British present or past would this modest exchange, about an almost-conversation, represent to an Austen reader? 

Slavery numbers for Regency fiction 

As Austen and her contemporary audience were aware, the trade in African slaves that took millions of people from the coast of West Africa to the New World was essential to England’s economic prosperity.  The role of the Atlantic slave trade in propping up the English economy cannot be overstated, even more so for England than its European counterparts.  The wealthy players in an English Regency novel are always performing on a stage where sumptuousness and prosperity exist by virtue of this cornerstone of English commerce. 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Caribbean sugar plantations, like Sir Thomas’s Antiguan plantation, pumped four million pounds annually into the British economy, whereas England’s commercial interests outside of the West Indies only produced one million pounds.  The fact that British wealth was so contingent on Caribbean plantations meant that practically all English people had some direct or indirect connection to slavery, be it through a poor cousin who worked as a Liverpool slave shipmate, or (like Fanny) a wealthy uncle who ran a plantation in Antigua. 

Jane Austen’s family was no exception, as they too were connected to slavery by a variety of what my own Caribbean family calls “pumpkin-vine relationships.”  More specifically, a few of her father’s nephews emigrated to the West Indies; her maternal uncle married an heiress to a Barbados plantation estate; and finally, in what is perhaps most germane to Mansfield Park, Jane’s father, Reverend George Austen was himself adjacent to the business of long-distance slave management.  In the service of friend and Oxford colleague James Langford Nibbs, Reverend Austen served as trustee of a marriage settlement that, among other properties, covered an Antiguan plantation much like the one that sits in the periphery of Mansfield Park.1 The economic vagaries and challenges of managing this kind of enterprise would undoubtedly have made an impression on Austen and provided fodder for her account of Sir Thomas’s own Antiguan plantation.  Austen’s brothers, too, were connected to slavery:  her brother Charles married the daughter of the former attorney general of Bermuda; Francis Austen, a naval brother to Charles, was a commander partly responsible for the policing and enforcement of the 1807 Abolition Act.  It is likely that Francis’s letters to Austen discussing the revolting nature of what he found aboard the then-illegal slave ships undoubtedly made an impression on her. 

A few numbers can quickly establish the scale of British investment in slavery and the slave trade.  According to James Walvin, by the nineteenth-century heyday of the Atlantic slave trade, one in six enslaved Africans took their forced journey aboard a Liverpool-registered ship (Walvin 12).  That number represents one-sixth of all enslaved Africans taken captive by any country.  In other words, 17% of the world’s enslaved Africans, from the beginning of the trade until its conclusion, were trafficked and transported by English commercial syndicates out of Liverpool.  According to the most recent archives, it hardly comes as a surprise that by the 1790s “Liverpool controlled 80% of the British slave trade and over 40% of the European slave trade” (“Liverpool”). 

Another number is relevant here:  between 1550 and 1850, approximately twelve and a half million Africans were transported by English ships (Walvin 27).  Eleven million survivors landed in the West Indies and the Americas, the majority of whom were sold to Brazilian and Caribbean sugar plantations.  It doesn’t require too much creative thinking to imagine what happened to those 1.5 million who went missing between the African coast and the slavers’ destinations. 

Lest we think that the 11 million who survived the journey across the Atlantic were much luckier than their deceased shipmates, it is worth noting that Caribbean slavery carried the weight of a death sentence.  The majority of the difference had to do with the uniquely brutal nature of cultivating sugar cane by hand, which slavery historian Adam Hochschild describes as “one of the hardest ways of life on earth” (65).  In fact, compared with American plantations where slaves lived relatively long but exhausted lives, West Indian slaves were, in the words of Hochschild, “systematically worked to an early death” (67). 

On the other hand, in the United States, the less than half a million slaves that were imported over the centuries had reached nearly four million by the passing of emancipation (Hochshild 67).  By contrast, at the end of British West Indian slavery (in 1833, well after Jane Austen’s death), slave imports of over ten million left a surviving slave population of only about 670,000 (67).  At the risk of being repetitive, this means that over two centuries, plantations (many like the Bertrams’) took in 11 million slaves and, by 1833, only 670,00 of these slaves and their enslaved descendants were still alive.  Considering the invisible plantation sustaining Mansfield Park, even if it is impossible to know what happened on the Bertram plantation in particular, we can surmise that Austen knowingly painted the commerce of brutality into the background of the novel. 

Numbers are a valuable way of thinking about the trade, because it was first and foremost a numbers game:  how many slaves, worth how much money, sold to whom, when, and where.  This much is illustrated by looking at an accounting page from the slave ship Molly, excerpted from a book documenting several months’ worth of transactions in a single slave trading port, Bonny, located in present-day Nigeria.  The curatorial note from the Royal Museums Greenwich brings clarity to this otherwise illegible sheet.  Noting that “the account book was kept between 1 February 1759 and 27 April 1759,” we learn that records include, among other cargo, “286 Africans purchased at Bonny including 125 men, 114 woman, 21 boys, 26 girls; 386 Elephant Teeth and . . . a list of weapons to be traded at Bonny” (Account Book).  In the left margin of the figure, we find a small selection of the names of “Negroes purchased” for transport on the Molly, along with the variety of items used as forms of payment.  All of this distills to one example among many:  a little girl named Jemmy was exchanged for some combination of muskets, gunpowder, and other miscellaneous provisions. 


An account book of the slave ship Molly at Bonny Island.  Courtesy of Royal Museums Greenwich. 
(Click here to see a larger version.)

For all the impact of those larger numbers, in the barest terms, this list is full of cramped, sloppily inked numbers tallying the scale of human flesh added—and ultimately erased from—a single ship’s accounting pages.  It is the perverted reality of one such tally sheet that brings us full circle to the novel’s namesake. 

Doing the Devil’s arithmetic on the slave ship Zong 

Among the multitudes who found their fortunes by trading enslaved Africans, one successful Liverpool slavery syndicate called “Gregson” used a different fleet to carve out their own corner of the market.  In November 1781, however, one of their slave ships, the Zong, disrupted this commercial momentum, ultimately influencing British social and political discourse in a way that galvanized the burgeoning abolitionist movement.  This incident catapulted the 1st Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, from being fairly well known among the gentry to the eighteenth-century equivalent of celebrity status.  The name “Mansfield” had deep significance in Jane Austen’s England, and it is worth thinking about what kind of figure and politics Austen tied herself to when, in 1814, she selected the estate name and book title Mansfield Park

It would be specious to argue that Austen was explicitly evoking Lord Mansfield, the person, with the novel’s title, although there is a case to be made there.  Rather, I would suggest that she was quite deliberately gesturing at the cultural discourse that he represents, at his name’s indexical link to a particularly charged national moment, an argument that is substantiated by the novel’s themes of slavery, entrapment, and servitude.  It is worth contemplating what Austen’s contemporaries would have understood that gesture to mean, given the reputational baggage of the name “Mansfield” in Regency zeitgeist and politics.  Slavery and the Zong case are crucial to understanding Lord Mansfield, and Mansfield is crucial to understanding Austen’s creative choices. 

For those introduced to the Zong by way of the most salacious retellings of the mass murder, it is difficult to imagine the degree to which Gregson’s robust slave business was a mundane fact of English commerce.  In the final decades of the eighteenth century, however, ships like the Gregson syndicate’s Zong were doing a safe and steady business out of Liverpool.  In contrast to its outsized impact on historical memory, this particular ship was unusual in its smallness; it was only 110 tons and was made to carry around 193 African slaves.  When the Zong sailed on September 6, 1781, the slavers more than doubled the ship’s capacity, ultimately carrying 459 enslaved Africans. 

The famous image of the Brookes (above) from Thomas Clarkson’s The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, published to show the inhumanity of the enslaved Africans’ stowage, provides some context that accounts for the utility of the Zong incident in the abolitionist movement and messaging.  The Brookes came in at 267 tons and carried 609 Africans (Walvin 27), as the drawing depicts.  Though more than twice as large as the Zong, the Brookes carried only 150 more people.  While it is easy to fall into the realm of abstraction, one need only contemplate the mechanics of provisioning and exercising people under these circumstances.2  With these kinds of capacity issues—in which a space built for 193 people was forced to accommodate the sick bodies and human waste of 459 people—trouble was on the horizon. 

With this unwieldy group of people in tow, the Zong had quite a journey ahead.  While en route to the Caribbean, the crew misidentified Jamaica, their destination, as Hispaniola and travelled 300 miles too far before realizing that they needed to turn back, which resulted in 13 sailing days.  This error was magnified by the fact that, according to a crew member’s testimony, there was only 4 days’ water remaining.  At that point, the captain and his crew started doing some hard calculations.  If they allowed the slaves to sicken from dehydration, they would live long enough to arrive at port but would eventually die anyway.  Yet, death onshore was not covered by their insurance, so if some slaves were jettisoned in order to save the rest of the “cargo,” the slavers could make a claim and receive £30 for each slave tossed overboard. 

Less than three months after sailing for Jamaica, all of the shipmates convened to do this cost-benefit analysis and unanimously decided that the prudent course of action was to throw some of the slaves overboard.  On November 29, 54 women and children were thrown through cabin windows into the sea.  On December 1, 42 male slaves were thrown overboard; 36 slaves followed over the next few days.  Another 10 slaves were so defiant at the crew’s inhumanity, that they intentionally jumped to their deaths.  After hearing the despairing cries of his jettisoned shipmates, one slave requested that he and the others be starved to death rather than suffer the agony of drowning at sea, but his request was denied. 

Despite the crew’s claims that they killed more than 130 people so the remaining slaves and crew would have enough life-saving water, this justification was ultimately undermined by a simple inventory, of humans and provisions, upon arrival in Jamaica on December 22.  By the time of debarkation, the Zong carried less than half of the Africans that boarded; alongside these survivors, the ship also arrived with 420 imperial gallons of water in reserve.  In fact, on the day that the 42 men were thrown overboard, it rained heavily enough to fill six casks of water, sufficient for 11 more days at sea.  The massacre happened because the promised reimbursement of £30 for each jettisoned slave was preferable to the risk of losing their value, should they die onshore.  As the slavers saw it, it made more sense to put food and water resources into the remaining marketable slaves lest they sicken too, rendering the whole journey a waste. 

It was not until March 19, 1783, when Jane Austen had only just turned seven, that the details of the Zong affair really came to light.  Although one might reasonably expect the Gregson company to keep the sordid story quiet, they were ultimately responsible for exposing themselves to public ire.  Although they didn’t set out to draw attention, the Liverpool syndicate that suffered the “property losses” in question sued their insurers, insisting they be remunerated for the discarded Africans.  As Walvin summarizes, “The shipowners were pursuing their claim under well-established protocols of maritime insurance which accepted that the enslaved Africans . . . were insured as cargo.  Moreover, under certain circumstances, the loss of those Africans could be claimed on the ship’s insurance” (2).  While the mathematic uniformity of the insurance industry remained among the least sensational media topics, this particular claim caught public attention. 

In 1783, lead abolitionists Granville Sharpe and his formerly enslaved colleague, Olaudah Equiano, sought to publicize a case that captured the dark arithmetic of the trade in human flesh.  Operating under the moral auspices of “an expanding army of outraged British critics,” Sharpe and Equiano argued what now seems absurdly obvious:  “The Zong’s owners were demanding money for over a hundred human lives brutally and purposefully cut short” (Walvin 2).  Moreover, Gregson and Gilbert, the shipowners and their insurers, respectively, exposed the dirtiest details of the events, by releasing the accounting pages to an increasingly outraged public.  As Walvin puts it, the legal parties “ensured that the story of the Zong was transformed from a murderous secret among the small handful of sailors who carried out the killings, and their employers in Liverpool, into a highly visible political and legal issue” (2).  Why would the slavers risk such a public backlash by coming forward?  Likely because the trade itself seemed above reproach and impregnable despite its ugliest incarnations (like a massacre at sea).  Additionally, the potential cost of unreimbursed property exceeded the anticipated cost in reputation, one exercise in arithmetic that the shipowners would undoubtedly come to regret. 

Meeting Lord Mansfield 

What stunned people about the Zong in March 1783 was not simply the murderous brutality on that ship, but the incredible legal saga played out in London—and its implications.  Sitting under the watchful gaze of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, an English jury “rendered a verdict wholly favourable to the owners of the Zong for their loss of 130-plus slaves at 30 pounds each” (Oldham 312).  It would be difficult to overstate the collective outrage at the jury’s decision regarding compensation for each of the murdered Africans, or the degree to which the insurance company’s appeal spread and amplified growing public sentiment. 

The biography of William Murray, or Lord Mansfield as he was widely known, brings another unique layer to the case.  The most relevant detail of his personal life involved his relationship to his deceased nephew’s daughter, Dido Elizabeth Belle.  As the child of Sir Jon Lindsay and an enslaved West Indian woman known as Maria Belle, Dido was a striking brown-skinned girl and, unsurprisingly, conspicuous among her family and society.  The idea of a mixed-race woman being raised as a daughter on a wealthy English estate starting in 1766 was bizarre enough.  Yet, more shocking was that the supreme judge of England, the man responsible for making some of the most significant rulings around slavery at a crucial period in the struggle for abolition, also reared and loved a black child as if she were his own. 

This was the man before whom the insurers appealed the jury’s decision in their fight to dismiss Gregson’s claim for the murdered slaves.  After an agonizing deliberation process, Lord Mansfield decided in favor of the insurance company and denied Gregson’s claim.  Although Mansfield’s conservative nature led him to insist that any legal pronouncements should not harm Britain’s commercial prosperity—even when it was anchored in the slave trade—he ultimately set a legal precedent that played a hugely important role in the termination of slavery. 

With the story of Mansfield’s life and verdicts in mind, it is hard to imagine that Austen deliberately named her book and its setting without thinking of the influential figure that was Lord Mansfield.  After all, could we today read a book called “Ginsburg Estates” or “Scalia Park” without it eliciting an entire body of legal politics?  In the end, Jane Austen’s untimely death ended her life before the Abolition Act of 1833 allowed her to see what a British Empire free of legal slavery actually looked like.  Mansfield Park may not be the English version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but it was a contribution to the conversation and consciousness of her abolitionist-era audience as well as to our contemporary insights into that audience’s attitudes and values.



I am indebted to James Walvin, whose book The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery (Yale, 2011) provided the foundational history and archival information for my argument. 

This essay also benefited from the feedback and insights of audiences who heard evolving iterations of the argument.  The first lecture was hosted by the Jane Austen Summer Program, the second by Jane Austen & Co.’s Race and the Regency series.  Director Inger Brodey, as well as the event co-organizers and attendees, have my gratitude.



1I credit the scholarship of Deirdre Le Faye and Devoney Looser for all details regarding Austen’s immediate and extended family. 

2Marcus Rediker’s work in The Slave Ship: A Human History provides a vivid account of the vagaries, and depravities, of shipboard life from a dynamic perspective.

Works Cited
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