‘Murder on the Middle Passage’ reconstructs important trial in anti-slavery movement

Nick Rogers
Nick Rogers

A new book by Nick Rogers, Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus from the Department of History at York University, exposes the brutality of the slave trade, uncovers an important legal trial in the first wave of British abolition and shows how class is crucial to understanding the dynamics of the abolition movement.

Murder on the Middle Passage: The Trial of Captain Kimber (Boydell and Brewer, 2020) tells the story of how the death of a 15-year-old girl aboard a slave ship shook the British establishment.

In 1792, John Kimber, captain of the Recovery ship out of Bristol, was denounced in the British House of Commons by William Wilberforce for flogging a 15-year-old African girl to death after she refused to eat, dance and keep herself in shape in order to be sold. Kimber was soon after indicted for murder, but in a trial lasting just under five hours, he was found not guilty.

Rogers’ book is a micro-history of that trial, reconstructing it from accounts of what was said in court and setting it in the context of pro- and anti-slavery movements. Rogers considers contemporary questions of culpability, the use and abuse of evidence, why Kimber was criminally indicted for murder and how the slave lobby ruthlessly opposed a possible prosecution and corralling of witnesses.

By examining the subsequent trials of witnesses that brought evidence of the whippings into public view for the first time, the book also looks at the role of sailors in the abolition debate, both in bringing the horrors of the slave trade to public notice and as strawmen for slavery advocates.

Murder on the Middle Passage: The Trial of Captain Kimber
Murder on the Middle Passage: The Trial of Captain Kimber

Rogers began the micro-history after he encountered a printed version of Kimber’s trial, as well as the muster roll of the Recovery in the Bristol archives, which provided critical details on Kimber’s crew, including their ages, seafaring experience, place of birth and literacy. That roll, and others like it, helped him picture what happened on that fateful voyage in which Kimber whipped three slaves to death.

Rogers demonstrates how prosecuting a slave-ship captain 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.

“It was an incident that mattered to contemporaries,” he explained. “It pushed the envelope on what was already a regulated albeit despicable trade.

“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?” Rogers asked. “Both in terms of the economy and the international situation, the stakes were high.”

Many of the events in this account take place in Bristol, where a statue of slave owner Edward Colston was toppled in June 2020.

Murder on the Middle Passage: The Trial of Captain Kimber is available for purchase online.