Wiliam Owen Roberts

Extract from Paradwys by Wiliam Owen Roberts, Barddas Publications 2001. Translation by Diarmuid Johnson.
Walton climbed the steps and stepped through the courtyard gate into the great hallway which was filled with the hubbub of hoarse voices and the laughter of conversation. He saw the Earl of Wellington standing halfway up the wide stairs. Inching nearer to him, he could see his uncle, the American Ambassador, Sir William-Henry Hobart, Sir Swaleside, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor at his shoulder discussing and debating a court case involving the captain of the ship Zong, a Mr Collingwood, who had decided to throw a hundred and thirty two negroes into the sea some months earlier because of an infection they had contracted which might easily have spread killing all other four hundred and forty slaves in the hold.
The true reason for drowning them was to claim £30 a head for each slave, arguing that it was imperative to do so owing to lack of water. The ship reached the harbour at Port Royal with four hundred and twenty gallons to spare. According to the terms of the insurance company, if the captives had died of natural causes on board the ship, there would have been no obligation to pay compensation to the owner. As the captain also was working for commission, there was money in the balance for him.

"How can Mr Collingwood defend himself"
"He argued that he was obliged to save the crew and the rest of the cargo on humanitarian grounds, and that that's why he had to do it", answered the Prime Minister.
Earl Foston interjected, "That doesn't hold water".
"They say that with all this throwing of negroes into the sea over the years our ships have changed the feeding patterns of the sharks of the ocean . . ." contributed the Earl of Wellington wisely.

The question was this: nobody denied that the captain had thrown a hundred and thirty two captives over the edge of the ship, but to what extent was the owner guilty? Was he guilty to the same extent as the captain, as he was sure to profit from the receipt of insurance money?
The Prime Minister judged the situation to be morally complex.
"After all, pay the owner insurance money and the captain will benefit. And if the captain hadn't done what he did, the owner would be a sight worse off."
"Out of pocket even", added the Earl of Wellington.
"It's a costly business sending ships to Africa. One's costs are rising from season to season . . ." said Earl Foston.

It was agreed, almost unanimously, that what had happened in the case of the ship Zong was a complete disgrace. The discussion went on until all agreed that the whole thing was more than a disgrace, that it was absolutely shameful. The Prime Minister went as far as to pronounce it a great ignominy and said it was high time to bring the matter before the Senate. Walton pricked up his ears.
"The matter needs to be thoroughly discussed on the floor of the House, and the act must be amended urgently during the next session. There are enough members who feel as strongly as we do regarding this matter, and I don't foresee any real difficulty or opposition to pushing the measure through as soon as possible to ensure that nothing like the case of the Zong should ever happen again."
The most pressing need was to consolidate the act, strengthen its power to protect the interests of insurance companies: after all, everyone agreed that it was a very serious matter to have unprincipled, wanton men swindle them out of their money.

Later, over a bowl of strawberries and sugar, when Walton Hobart asked the Earl of Wellington about what he had said to Sir William-Henry on the steps of the Opera House at Haymarket, he said he didn't have the faintest recollection.


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