Professor James Walvin teaches in the Center for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York. For over two decades he has devoted himself to studying the history of the Atlantic slave trade. His studies have not only invigorated our understanding of the trade, but they have also enhanced our understanding of public opinion about slavery.
Professor Walvin attempted to come to grips with how public ideas about the Zong massacre changed over time in relation to the question of violence. He noted that “[t]he mass killings of enslaved Africans on board the Liverpool slave ship Zong in 1781 have long been recognized as a heinous, unpunished mass murder. Even by the standards of Atlantic slavery, the Zong affair horrified contemporaries. But what precisely caused such public revulsion (in a world where Africans were routinely killed on slave ships)? Was it simply a matter of scale - the numbers involved? Or does the incident provide a way of looking into a changing sensibility about slavery itself? The whole story also remains shrouded in an element of uncertainty.”
In his presentation Professor Walvin discussed the intricate and conflicting ways public sensibilities changed over time; and, he proposed that the Zong affair was a turning point in public sentiment about the Atlantic slave trade.