Murder on the Middle Passage: The Trial of Captain Kimber

Professor Nicholas Rogers’ new book recounts the series of events that began with a horrific scene aboard the British slave ship Recovery in 1792: the senseless, brutal killing of a young woman. After the ship’s captain was denounced in the House of Commons by William Wilberforce the story became an international sensation. Abolitionists were appalled and even for some within the pitiless world of the international slave trade, Captain Kimber’s actions that day were too much to stomach. Here, Professor Rogers introduces us to the complicated story and to the origins of his book. 

For years I taught a graduate course on the theories and methodologies involved in writing social history and the micro-history component proved popular with students. I didn’t think I would write one myself until I encountered the muster roll of the Recovery in the Bristol archives which provided me with critical details on Kimber’s crew: their ages, seafaring experience, place of birth, literacy and so on. That roll, and others like it, accessible through the researches of David Richardson, gave me a sense of who entered the slave trade, what the risks were, and in the case of the Recovery, what happened on that fateful voyage in which John Kimber whipped three slaves to death. The possibilities of writing a micro-history on this episode increased when I discovered there were at least four printed versions of Kimber’s trial at the High Court of Admiralty; two, bewilderingly, only to be found in America. Why did New York’s Public Library have copies of a London-based trial that were not to be found in the British Library or Oxford and Cambridge? It is still a bit of a mystery, but it did point to the fact that the Kimber trial was something of an international event, of interest to slave-trade apologists and abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Microhistories depend a large degree upon traction, upon a good story rich in detail that has larger ramifications, that spans out to broader historical questions. There is always the possibility that such a venture will be trapped by a sceptical “so what”? Why does this particular story matter? The answer in the first instance is that it was an incident that mattered to contemporaries. It pushed the envelope on what was already a regulated albeit despicable trade. Could one bring some humanity to enslaved Africans who were normally regarded as ‘cargo’; in the famous Zong case of 1783, having a legal status equivalent to horses. Could one actually indict a ship captain for murdering slaves? The Dolben act of 1788 had tried to minimize the suffering of captive Africans by avoiding over-crowding in the holds and offering douceurs to captains and surgeons who tolerated low rates of mortality. It may seem despicable today to realise that His Majesty’s Government rewarded naval officers whose loss of slaves in the Middle Passage amounted to two per cent or under, but it  is  worth reminding ourselves that a mortality of 5-10 per cent was considered perfectly acceptable when transporting soldiers across the Atlantic or sending convicts on a life-threatening six-month journey to Botany Bay. In the late eighteenth century life was not quite ‘nasty, brutish and short’ as Thomas Hobbes had earlier described it, at least for most; but poor people were often forced to work in dangerous, insanitary conditions and their children were sometimes farmed out to hard masters for so-called apprenticeships. Life was cheap, especially for those born poor and out of wedlock. Still, prosecuting slave-ship captains for murder struck at the very heart of a trade that was profitable and imbricated or woven into many other parts of the national economy: through sugar; through textiles; through guns; through refineries; through marine insurance. The list could go on. It is estimated that forty per cent of all Bristolians had investments or jobs that were somehow linked to the slave trade. That explains why Bristol merchants and the West India lobby, in particular, saw the Kimber trial as a test case.  Parliament had already agreed to gradual abolition when Kimber took the stand at the Old Bailey, where the trials of the High Court of Admiralty were held. A majority of MP had hoped to fob off Wilberforce and his supporters with a long moratorium on actual abolition, but if Kimber was successfully prosecuted, what next? Would this tip the scales for a rapid abolition, at the very moment when Britain’s main competitors in sugar production and imminent enemies in war, the French, were struggling? Both in terms of the economy and the international situation, the stakes were high.

Kimber was acquitted at his trial, but the issue did not end there because the two prosecuting witnesses were indicted for perjury and as a result, some of the crucial evidence about the whippings and the move towards prosecution came into public view for the first time. The trial of Stephen Devereux, the third mate on the Recovery, was essential to opening up these aspects of the story. It transpired that at least six members of the crew were very unhappy with the hoisting up and flogging of one African girl and seriously considered prosecuting Captain Kimber for her death. But they were too despondent to pursue the matter and were cajoled or bribed into keeping their mouths shut. This perjury trial revealed the Bristol slave lobby at work, ruthlessly shutting down a possible prosecution and corralling witnesses. It showed how difficult it was for ordinary sailors to do anything about the iniquities they witnessed without threatening their jobs and the livelihood of their families. It is no accident that the factfinder general for the abolitionists, Thomas Clarkson, could rarely mobilize witnesses from slaving crews who had not gravitated to the royal navy, to a social couche that gave them some protection from local persecution.

The fact that ordinary seamen were appalled by slave-trade brutality, and sometimes, like the intrepid Bristolian, Ted Williams, were prepared to do something about it, adds a new dimension to the politics of evidence in slave-trade trials and inquiries. The cause of abolition was not simply top-down, engineered by wealthy philanthropists like Wilberforce. It was also bottom up, with people like Williams taking a stand at court and thousands of workers signing petitions against the trade and contributing their mite to the campaign. The sociology of the trade and its opponents jars a little with the politics of memory that surrounds it. The latter threatens to dissolve into simple dyads of black and white, although the history offers a kaleidoscope in grey. African traders like Jackamaree of New Calabar, who knowingly brought young girls on board for the sexual exploitation of Kimber’s crew, can hardly be considered morally superior to the monstrous captain himself, who amazingly thought himself above reproach for flogging young women who refused to eat, ‘dance’ and keep themselves in shape for sale. I hope this microhistory will add to the texture and horror of the slave-trade, to its politics, and to the courage of its opponents, without ‘porno-troping’ through the past.

This guest post was written by Nicholas Rogers, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at York University, Toronto.

Murder on the Middle Passage
By Nicholas Rogers
9781783274826, Paperback, £11.05 or $16.22

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