The Zong

Sheila Kolstoe

Liz Doyle

During March/April of 2007 my husband, Syd, and I felt the Lord asking us to go to the UK and help our friends, Dr. Clifford and Monica Hill of the Centre for Contemporary Ministry.  There we found ourselves helping to direct and coordinate an exhibition that involved sailing a replica 18th century square rigged cargo ship up the Thames River into London to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery.  For the exhibition, the ship was renamed "The Zong", after a notorious slaver, owned by the mayor of Liverpool at the time, whose story was used by the abolitionists to influence public opinion against slavery.

The project was widely embraced.  The British Navy offered to escort the ship up the Thames. This offer was accepted.

Clifford was then approached by The Greater London Council, led by Mayor Ken Livingston, who offered to help fund the project with a grant of £50,000 as long as the renowned abolitionist, William Wilberforce's Christian faith was not mentioned.  Clifford soundly rejected the money preferring to trust God for the funding and present the faith that drove the early abolitionists.  Mayor Livingston, however, when he saw excitement building up around the project, did accept the invitation to open the exhibition on the ship.

During our preparation, we asked for prayer for ourselves and the project.  We were traveling and ministering in Massachusetts at the time. A lady there prayed for me.  As she prayed, I heard the Lord say, ‘Have her pray for your right hand, that My power will flow out to others.’  I shared what I had heard.  She held my hand and began to shake violently as I felt the power of God course through my hand as she prayed! I had never experienced anything like this before!

The following Sunday, two other women from another part of Massachusetts, one an immigrant from Africa and the other from Mexico, began praying for me.  It wasn’t long before the sister from Mexico declared that the Lord would use my right hand and that the power of God would flow through it.

I was excited at the confirmation and shared the experience with an intercessor who said we must pray the prophesy into being.  This we did.

On the Sunday before we departed for England, we were scheduled to be ministering for the first time in a church in Michigan. I stood up and the Holy Spirit flooded me, I declared that the Lord was going to move with power through my right hand.  Knowing that the Mayor was scheduled to visit the ship, I  “painted a picture” of the Mayor of London coming aboard, shaking my hand, and then falling to his knees in repentance as the judgement of God came upon him for his wickedness! I think everyone wondered who on earth I was!

The day finally arrived for the commissioning of "The Zong” for its mission in London. The Mayor of the harbour town of Charlestown in Cornwall where it was docked, was coming on board to say a few words to be followed by the singing of "Amazing Grace".  This famous hymn was written by a slave ship captain, John Newton, who, after his conversion to Christianity, became an avid abolitionist and ally of William Wilberforce.

A well known Gospel singer scheduled to perform was unable to make it and frantically Clifford was looking for someone else. He asked me if I knew anyone.  I said, "I have done some singing in the past".  He said, "Great, you can sing it." So now I found myself standing on the deck of the ship singing "Amazing Grace" to the Mayor and her husband and the others who had joined us.  At the end of the ceremony she approached me and said, "That was the most beautiful rendition of the song I have ever heard".  This led to an hour long conversation in the hold of the ship about slavery and the faith of the abolitionists. I then talked about how we are all slaves to sin and need to be set free. I prayed with her and her husband to receive Jesus as their Saviour.

Here we were, on a replica slave ship remembering the wickedness that enslaved millions to enrich the Mayors of Liverpool and London. Now God was using this story to explain "His Story" resulting in this mayor being freed from her own "slavery" to sin through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The promise of the power of God running through my hand still echoed in the back of my mind.

It was April 2007 and today we would witness the realization of a vision Dr. Clifford Hill had been given of a “slave ship” with a black and white choir singing “Amazing Grace” as it made its way under the iconic Tower Bridge on the River Thames into the city of  London.

As Syd and I waited to take our places aboard the vessel at the mouth of the river, my phone rang.  Clifford was calling to tell me that during the night he had yet another picture, this time it was of me and the already scheduled award winning Gospel British/Nigerian artist, Precious Babatunde, performing “Amazing Grace” as a duet, during the opening celebrations.  Would I please ask if I could join her?

She graciously consented and we had a quick practice before we joined the choir singing a wide range of hymns and spirituals as we sailed down the Thames and finally under Tower Bridge.

We had an eventful voyage escorted by the battleship, HMS Northumberland, with several Police dinghies and a helicopter that took off from the deck and circled us.

As we docked in the Pool of London, the Navy band played and sailors lined up on deck with their hats over their hearts in memory of the many men, women and children who had lost their lives as captives on the long voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.

After “The Zong” was firmly moored, a large contingent of media crammed onto a 50 seater ferry boat along with the Mayor of London “Red” Ken Livingstone, and several High Commissioners from African and Caribbean Nations for the opening of the exhibition.

A chain was fastened across the entrance to the lower deck and cargo hold where the Africans would have been manacled for transportation to a life of slavery.  The mayor symbolically cut the chain, declaring the “Free at Last” exhibition of slavery past and present, open.  At that point Precious and I were to sing “Amazing Grace”, however, the Mayor and the other dignitaries took matters into their own hands and with the television cameras and press reporters made their way down the steep stairway into the gloom below where a superb exhibition recreated the terrible conditions endured by the millions of Africans who were torn from their homes and cruelly beaten into servitude.  It was a moving experience.

We were concerned about what the controversial Mayor might say knowing his strong Marxist leaning views.   Many people were praying around the world. We feel certain those prayers prepared the way for what would happen next.

Mayor Livingstone was deeply moved surrounded by evidence of the cruelty of the slave trade. Addressing the TV cameras and press he spoke of the need to recognize this forgotten period in Britain’s history in order to deal with the social issues of the modern day. He thanked Clifford for taking this initiative and for the quality and dedication of the work involved. 

As the ceremonies took place below deck, Precious and I realized that our moment to sing had passed and so she prepared to leave the ship to beat  the crowd.  Just then, a member of the camera crew above deck, stopped her and asked if she would perform a song for their segment on London Weekend TV that evening.  She agreed as long as I could sing with her. So the cameras started rolling and we began singing.

Meanwhile, below deck, Clifford was talking to the Mayor about the transforming power of the love of Jesus and his own need for God's help in the great responsibilities that he carried encouraging racial harmony in a multicultural society.  He said that government policies were fine and necessary but only Jesus could bring people together.  

As Clifford and the Mayor arrived up on the deck to leave the ship,  the Mayor noticed us and came over, listening intently while we sang all six verses of Amazing Grace. 

He then came forward and reached out his hand!  As I took it, I felt the power of God flow through me to him, but it wasn’t as I had envisioned in judgement, it was in great love.

Tears came to his eyes as he spoke to me.  He said he had never heard all the words to “Amazing Grace” before.

The presence of the love of God was so great that I could only utter “God bless you” before he moved on to speak with Precious. 

When he finished speaking with her, he came back to me and AGAIN took my hand…He said, “Who are you?” This time I blurted out,  “I am Liz Doyle” and then, nearly word for word the same message that Clifford had shared with him privately, “Jesus is the only one who can bring people together.” 

Still emotional,  he shared some of his burdens and we promised we would pray for him as he carried out his great responsibilities. 

It was clear that he was deeply moved. What a day of amazing Grace!  And it didn’t stop there!

Clifford stood in amazement as I unwittingly repeated the message that he had just delivered in private to Mayor Livingston. God was up to something.

Syd wasn’t so convinced. He was watching from afar and saw the Mayor take out his handkerchief and wipe his eyes.
“He’s a politician, he’s playing to the crowd”, he said, “I will believe it, if he follows up with a call to Clifford to meet him in his office about all of this.”
I told him, “I was there, I knew what I felt and what I saw. It was the Lord!”

The “Free at Last” exhibition opened to the public. Over the 10 days, 6000 visitors came through the 2 hour presentation of slavery’s evils,  past and present, in 3 parts in 2 venues.

All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London provided the venue for the first section, with visitors given an overview of slavery by volunteers and a walk through historic picture gallery.

They were then escorted down to an awaiting ferry to be taken out to the replica slaver, “The Zong.”
50 people were allowed on the ship at a time and gathered together for a talk, emphasizing the work by William Wilberforce and other abolitionists, men and women, black and white, to see the scourge of slavery removed once and for all. We emphasized the Christian faith that motivated Wilberforce and many of the early abolitionists.
Historians were on hand to answer questions.

The ship gave visitors a chance to explore the appalling conditions and cruelties inflicted on the millions transported from Africa.

There were many opportunities to comfort those who were deeply moved by the experience of visiting the ship. The love of God in the hold, allowed many to find release from their personal legacy of slavery. Several said that they could feel shame “lift” from them. Truly, this was an act of redemption – a model of a ship previously owned by a mayor, used now to touch 2 mayors. A ship that held slaves, now being used to set captives free!

Visitors reentered the Church for the third section of the tour using audio visual, standing displays and artifacts, some that were used in the film “Amazing Grace,” to introduce visitors to the work of the abolitionists and finally, modern day slavery. During evening seminars, we also explored the legacy of slavery and the need for abolitionists today.

Through it all our main emphasis was reconciliation.

One day we had a surprise visitor. We knew something was up when police boats began cruising around the ship.
British Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and his “entourage” arrived. I was asked to take them on a tour. He was a far left socialist and didn’t usually hide his opinion of Americans or Christians.

“So you are an American?” he asked. “Yes sir, I am, but lived here for 25 years, so now come to help out where needed.”
“Christians are sponsoring this exhibition?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, but it’s for everyone.”

The Lord quietly whispered to me, “only say what I tell you to say”.

“Well let’s get on with it then,” the prestigious politician said.

I took them down the steep steps into the cargo hold where the slaves were transported. There were pictures and stories of the horrifying conditions they were made to endure. I drew their attention to the “slave pens”.

“The other day a black family stood here - the mother encouraged her children to climb onto the racks to experience the feeling of being chained for weeks to the cage. When they came out she gathered them up and began to cry. She turned to me and said, “I feel a weight of shame has been lifted from me, I just realized the strength of body and soul my ancestors displayed, by making it through this torture. They were the strong ones.””

He looked at me in silence. His entourage looked uncomfortable.
We turned the corner to be confronted with an image of a black African in chains, he said,
“So I suppose only Christians come to this exhibition?” “No not at all”, I said. “Just yesterday a black gentleman came to me, angrily demanding he be allowed to come on the tour free of charge.  He said he was owed “reparation” for what was done to his ancestors.
I told him I’d have to ask the organizers about a refund. Then I asked him a question. “How much is a man’s life worth?” I then looked directly into the Deputy Prime Minister’s eyes and continued, “What is the value of your soul?”

I suspected God was asking him that same question.

We continued to tour “ The Zong” for 30 minutes. Other members of the team also shared with him their thoughts and the aim of the project; to be agents of healing and reconciliation.

Before he left, he thanked me sincerely for the tour. His attitude took a 180 degree turn, he wanted to see the exhibition permanently moored in London as a commemoration of that period in history and as an educational tool for schools.

His entourage expressed their gratitude, agreeing that there was something very special about the ship, in fact the slave pens gave them “goosebumps and moved them to tears”.

Oh, by the way, Syd became a “believer” when the very next day, Clifford got a call from the Mayor’s Parlour asking for a meeting. Clifford met with the Mayor and his top officials who were very encouraging and felt that the ship should be permanently moored in London and offered to help fund raise! What a change from refusing to help and withholding funds, just weeks earlier!

If it could be kept as a Christian project, it would be an immensely powerful means of evangelism in the heart of the City. (This has yet to take place, but there is a group working toward it.)

The Mayor also asked Clifford for advice on spiritual matters and had him speak at several commemorative events, connected with the abolition celebrations.
I actually emailed the Mayor’s office to assure him of our prayers. His response was that he was “moved by the exhibition and the singing”.

I also believe that when the Lord touched Mayor Livingston, he received a heart of repentance for the sins of past Mayors in England. In the year following our encounter there were newspaper reports like these:
”Ken Livingstone yesterday marked the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade with an emotional and tearful ceremonial apology on behalf of the capital city and its institutions. The London mayor wept as he told a commemorative service of the cruelties inflicted on the millions transported from Africa and the legacy that confronts them today….Afterwards he said he had read the address several times before delivering it but "had no idea how overwhelming it was going to be”.” Aug 23, 2007 The Guardian.

The Zong slaveship coming through Tower Bridge