The Ethics of ‘Necessity’ and the 1781 Zong Massacre

Posted by Daniel Kosacz for Study of Ethics in Society

Cynthia Klekar-Cunningham, director of the School of Communication and professor of English, examines the 1781 Zong massacre and the broader transatlantic slave trade in the context of 18th-century medical ethics.

The Zong massacre involved the drowning of 132 African captives at the command of the ship’s captain and surgeon, Luke Collingwood, ostensibly out of “necessity” to save the remaining passengers.

Dr. Klekar-Cunningham proposes that this act of murder laid bare a heightening ethical conflict between the financial imperatives of the slave trade and the medical standards necessary to regulate the selection and sale of captives. She argues that Collingwood deployed his medical expertise selectively, wielding a biopolitical authority over the captives’ bodies to calibrate the potential loss of “cargo” and protect against revolt. Collingwood’s attempt to reframe the murders as a necessity to preserve the remainder ultimately exposed the impossibility of turning captives into disposal commodities while simultaneously instituting contemporary practices of ethical care.  

Dr. Klekar-Cunningham’s research interests include the ethics of gift exchange, theories of biopolitical displacement, the 18th-century novel, and leadership in higher education

This talk is co-sponsored by the School of Communication, Department of English, and Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations. For more information, visit the Ethics Center's website.

The talk will be livestreamed.

Date: Thursday, March 14, 2024
Time: 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Location: 2026 Brown Hall Clifford Center
Kalamazoo MI 49008 US
Contact: Sandra Borden
Email for more information