The slave trade was at a massive peak in the 18th century with more than two million slaves leaving the shores of Africa a year. Slave traders and captains of ships allowed ships to be overloaded with slaves due to high demand.
While sailing to their forced new lives, many slaves went through horrific experiences with some dying as a result. It was during this same time that slave trade abolitionist started to make public cries exposing the treatments that were meted out to enslaved Africans.
On April 2, 1792, British politician and slave trade abolitionist, William Wilberforce appeared before the parliament to debate on the abolition of the slave trade. After his debate, Wilberforce continued with a speech to solidify his reasons and gain sympathy from parliament.
While giving his speech, he made mention of the gruesome killing of an innocent enslaved teenage girl from Calabar in Nigeria after she refused to dance for Captain John Kimber on his ship in 1791. The speech was published in the newspapers, and on April 2, 1792, John Kimber’s statement was released in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal where he stated that the accusations were false. After investigations, John Kimber was immediately charged with murder and arrested and proceed to court for the John Kimber Trial of 1792.
John Kimber was the captain of Recovery, one of the most famous slave ships in England. In 1791, he set sail from Bristol to Calabar, now modern Nigeria on a mission to capture slaves that were needed in Grenada. A total of 300 slaves were captured and forced on board the ship which set sail for Grenada on September 1, 1791.
While sailing for Grenada, John Kimber and a few sailors used the excuse of exercise time to make selected enslaved women dance for them. Exercise time was a necessary exercise for slaves to keep them active before returning to their cells. In one of such escapades, John selected a teenager who had previously refused to eat. At the time, many slaves starved themselves with the hopes of dying before reaching the new world.
After several failed attempts to make her dance, Captian John Kimber is reported to have beaten the naked teenager with a whip as a form of ‘punishment’. Not satisfied with her pain, Captain Kimber later tied one of the girl’s ankles and had her suspending while he whipped her until she died. The ship reached Grenada on October 28, 1791, with 27 of the slaves dying but Captain John excluded the teenager in the count.
During the court hearing, Captain Kimber stated that the slave girl had died because she refused to eat. He pleaded not guilty adding that all other accusations were false. The ship’s surgeon Thomas Dowling who had narrated the incidence to Wilberforce was called to give his statement. Former mutineer Stephen Devereux also gave his statement which proved Captian John Kimber guilty. However, the court did not allow for witnesses to affirm the incident.
In 1973, John Kimber was acquitted and set free after the Jury found him not guilty. Three witnesses including a rich Bristol Merchant and another captain, Captain Philips spoke in favour of Captain Kimber. They accused Stephen Devereux and Thomas Dowling for giving false accounts due to personal issues they had with the Captain.
The Jury then charged Surgeon Stephen Devereux and Thomas Dowling with perjury serving a few months in prison and paying a fine.
The John Kimber Trial became one of the most followed trials in and outside of Europe because of the popularity of the Recovery ship and its captain. The decision of the Jury sent a clear message to William Wilberforce as well as many other abolitionists on the hard work they had to do but to the enslaved Africans; it carried an even louder message that they had to succumb to make it out alive.