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Murder on the Middle Passage

The Trial of Captain Kimber

Nicholas Rogers

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Geisteswissenschaften, Kunst, Musik / Geschichte


On 2 April 1792, John Kimber, captain of the Bristol slave ship Recovery, was denounced in the House of Commons by William Wilberforce for flogging a fifteen-year old female slave to death. The story, caricatured in a contemporary Isaac Cruikshank print, raced across newspapers in Britain and Ireland and was even reported in America. Soon after, Kimber was indicted for murder. In a trial lasting just under five hours, he was found not guilty. However, when one of the prosecution's principal witnesses was subsequently tried for perjury over his claim that the girl's flogging had led to her death, he, too, was acquitted. This book is a micro-history of this important trial, one of the first in which a captain was accused of murdering a slave. Central to the abolition debate of the 1790s, it sets the case in the context of Bristol society, the slave trade and the pro- and anti-slavery movements. The book reconstructs the history of the trials, looking at the differing accounts of what was said in court, the verdicts and their legal implications. It considers contemporary questions of culpability, the use and abuse of evidence, and why Kimber was criminally indicted for murder at a time when slaves were generally regarded as 'cargo'. Importantly, the book looks at the role of sailors in the abolition debate: both in bringing the horrors of the slave trade to public notice and as straw-men for slavery advocates, who excused the treatment of slaves by comparing it to punishments meted out to sailors and soldiers. The book also explains why the abolition campaign, which seemed to have such momentum in 1792, stalled in the era of the French Revolution. The final chapter looks at the appropriation of this incident by African-American writers interested in recreating the trauma of the Middle Passage and addresses the question of whether the slave-trade archive can adequately recover the slave experience. NICHOLAS ROGERS is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at York University, Toronto.

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