SEAFARERS are arguably the most superstitious people on earth. From the onset of seafaring, seafarers have developed and observed a stringent set of myths and superstitions. Both the humble fisherman out for fishing in his canoe and the captains of luxurious yacht doing Trans- Atlantic crossing, are always on the lookout,
Some superstition were started simply for safety sake, some have biblical references, while others are just superstition. Regardless of how or why these superstitions evolved, the strength of sailing superstition is undeniable and it recently played out on a ship bound for Italy carrying illegal immigrants.
The ship which set sail from Libya for the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in early August, was trying to cross the Mediterranean when tragedy struck. The ship was caught in rough seas and the situation got worse when the ship's engine failed but rather than turn rely on skills the Captain, a Nigerian, allowed his superstitions get the better of him and allegedly turned to Voodoo and started picking victims for human sacrifices to appease the seas and pacify the devil
The ship was eventually rescued and escorted to Lampedusa's harbour by the coastguards after they receiving a mayday signal form the stranded ship. On getting to Lampedusa, 25 illegal immigrants were found dead in the hold due to suffocation from poisonous fumes from the engine and inadequate conditions on board. Others were rushed to hospital suffering from dehydration and exhaustion.
A full investigation was launched by Lampedusa Island Police and the horror of what happened unfolded. According to the prosecutor Ignazio Fonzo, who led the investigation, "Survivors told us that the captain of the boat, a Nigerian, was the leader of the rituals that began after the engine on the boat failed and they were left stranded in stormy seas.
"One man was selected taken down into the hold and beaten before being led back up on deck and then thrown into the sea with his hands tied. As this happened, prayers, chanting and dancing took place and it was said he was sacrificed to cast out demons and calm the seas. "This happened several times during the voyage we believe at least a dozen people were thrown alive into the sea in this way but now after a thorough three month investigation we have arrested five people in connection with these multiple murders." The five men arrested are West Africans aged between 28 and 44 years old.
According to witnesses, victims were picked on the basis of their ethnic origin or nationality after the selection, a number of Nigerian women performed a macabre dance of death before victims were thrown into the sea. One survivor recounted what happened. 'I saw a group of Nigerian women carrying out a strange magic ritual and afterwards they pointed at various people.
'The first who was grabbed had his hands and feet tied and he was then thrown alive into the sea.'
The practice of throwing people overboard for one reason or the other can be traced back to slavery where cruel greedy slave-traders would pack on more slaves than there was room for and when they start running low on supplies they would throw them overboard. Gregson V. Gilbert 1783 was a landmark case that though did not stop slavery, increased the number of new recruits supporting the abolitionist and inspired the Quakers ( The Religious Society of Friends) to present a petition for the abolition of slave trade.
In the Gregson V. Gilbert case, the slave ship Zong was under the command of Luke Collingwood and set sail on 6th September 1781 from the African Coast. As was common practice, the crew packed on many more slaves than there was room for and, as a result, disease and malnutrition had claimed the lives of seven white men and sixty African slaves by 29th November. In his book 'Black Slaves in Britain", Shyllon writes;
"Chained two by two, right leg and left leg, right hand and left hand, each slave had less room than a man in a coffin."
Luke Collinwood decided that all remaining sick Africans should be thrown overboard to protect the crew and the remaining cargo of slaves. It is said that he assembled the crew and explained that throwing the slaves overboard whilst they were still alive, for the safety of the ship, would result in the ship's underwriters bearing the cost. Allowing the slaves to die a natural death on board would make the loss the crew's responsibility. European law, at this time, stated;
The insurer takes upon him the risk of the loss, capture, and death of slaves, or any other unavoidable accident to them: but natural death is always understood to be excepted: by natural death is meant, not only when it happens by disease or sickness, but also when the captive destroys himself through despair, which often happens: but when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection on their part, then the insurers must answer.
The ship was in the joint ownership of James Gregson and a number of other slave-dealers in Liverpool. Collingwood decided to act in the best interests of himself and the owners by throwing the live slaves overboard. His attempt to use the law in his favor by throwing 133 slaves overboard over a three day period was misjudged, as the ship was not in any danger. Shyllon reports;
“The last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death. Once again, I think that the Africans aboard the Zong as well as any other slave ship should be considered brave for enduring the painful, inhumane conditions they had to experience. Even when it came down to the seamen throwing the captured slaves over the boat, there were still ten people who faced death with a lot of courage”.
When the owners attempted to claim the full value of the murdered slaves from the insurers, the company refused to settle. They discovered that the claim that the slaves had to be thrown overboard because of water depletion was untrue as it was later proven that the captain had an opportunity to take on water on 1st December and when the Zong landed in Jamaica on 22nd December, there was 420 gallons of water to spare.
Just like the slaves on board Zong those immigrants did not have to die such a horrific death just because the captain thought he was trying to save the rest of those on board.
Culled from : Nigerian