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Play dramatises notorious slave massacre

  • Date

    Tue 21 Nov 17

Painting of the Zong massacre

1781. A British slave-trading ship sets sail from Africa to Jamaica, dangerously overloaded with 442 slaves. A navigational error sees the ship sail past Jamaica and by the time the mistake is realised water supplies are running low. Over the next few days, 132 men, women and children are thrown overboard to drown.

The Zong massacre became one of the most notorious tragedies in the history of the slave trade, but it was the aftermath that is arguably most shocking. The ship’s owners claimed insurance for the murdered slaves. The insurer disputed that claim and the ensuing court battles galvanised the abolitionists.  

How could the Captain and crew make their decision? This question and more are considered in Essex historian Dr Jeremy Krikler's play, A Peril of the Sea, which opens at the Colchester Campus Lakeside Theatre before moving to the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.

“The play emerged from my research into the Zong case,” says Dr Krikler. “The incomprehensibility of slaves being murdered and then claimed for as destroyed property seemed to cry out for analysis and dissemination.”

“The paradoxes of the case are also compelling. The claim was initially upheld by the Lord Chief Justice, yet his niece – a loved member of his household – was the daughter of a slave and he ruled in favour of slaves in other legal cases. So what made him justify mass murder aboard the Zong?”

Dr Jeremy Krikler
“in a historical play, one has to sacrifice certain details and even elements of accuracy in order to convey the larger historical insights”
Dr Jeremy Krikler Department of History

A Peril of the Sea is Dr Krikler’s first play and colleagues in theatre studies as well as theatre director Robert Price helped hone and develop it. 

Dr Krikler said: “It’s been a long, arduous process of writing and re-writing, having readings performed by professionals and taking on board criticism. It’s amazing how quickly you realise that you aren’t Shakespeare, Ibsen or Miller! Our playwrights Jonathan Lichtenstein and Liz Kuti and Caribbean literature and history expert Jak Peake provided invaluable advice, as did the Lubkinfinds Theatre Company, which has a close association with playwrights here.”

One of the challenges for Dr Krikler as a historian was to accept that minor inaccuracies are sometimes necessary. 

“At an early stage the play had a workshop at RADA. The director taught me that it’s sometimes necessary to depart from the historical record to make a character work. The whole exercise has forced me to think about how, in a historical play, one has to sacrifice certain details and even elements of accuracy in order to convey the larger historical insights.”

‘A Peril of the Sea’ runs from 6-8 December at the Lakeside Theatre at our Colchester Campus, before moving to the Bloomsbury Theatre in London from 14-16 December.