It is one of the most famous prints showing the horrors of the slave trade. A grinning ship’s captain watches the torture of a young black woman.
She has been seized from her African home and forced on to a ship that will take her across the Atlantic. If she survives she will be sold as a slave.
But soon she will die—and we will never discover her name.
The captain in that print is John Kimber, who in 1792 was tried amid the grandeur of the British High Court of the Admiralty—and acquitted of all wrongdoing.
Nicholas Rogers’ book uses these horrific events to show the divisions that lay behind the battles over slavery. It brings home the determination of Britain’s rulers to defend the slave trade for decades.
Kimber had started his seafaring as a state-licensed pirate—a privateer.
He roamed the seas with a letter from the government authorising him to rob shipping that belonged to Britain’s enemies.
He was successful and made a fortune. But it soon went and he turned to the even bloodier trade in slaves.
Kimber sailed from Bristol, a centre of slaving that was the main port until 1745 when it was overtaken by Liverpool. Between 1698 and 1807 Bristol’s rich financed over 2,000 slaving operations.
These were the people who celebrated Edward Colston, a pioneer of slaving from the 1680s and whose statue was rightly hurled into Bristol harbour earlier this year.
In 1791 Kimber skippered the ship Recovery to West Africa. Arriving at the Niger Delta he found local people would not offer him slaves or water.
So Kimber, along with five other British captains, ordered a bombardment of the coast.
Rogers tells us that the British hoped “a good volley of cannonballs would resolve outstanding contracts and force down the price of slaves”.
The slaves were duly loaded, to face the agony and terror of the “Middle Passage” to the Caribbean. Crammed below decks and half-starved they were prey to disease—and assaults by the crew.
Slaves often resisted, whether by fighting to take over the ship or hurling themselves overboard to escape their torment. One young woman proved particularly difficult for Kimber.
She had been raped and infected with gonorrhoea that left her semi-comatose. When she would not exercise with the other slaves, Kimber ordered her to be flogged.
Soon she had an injured knee and could hardly walk. Kimber was concerned—not for her welfare but that this might reduce her value when she was sold in Grenada.
His vile solution was to string her up from the ship’s mast, first by one leg, then the other and finally her arms. In each position he whipped her.
“The bitch is sulky,” Kimber had decided after the first flogging. Eventually she fell into convulsions and died.
Unusually this outrage did not go unnoticed. News of Kimber’s raid on the coast came to the attention of campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade.
They were headed by William Wilberforce MP. Wilberforce was a highly contradictory character, conservative in most ways but genuinely outraged by slavery.
His campaigns against it led to bitter attacks and, for example, he could not enter Liverpool for fear he would be murdered. While collecting information about the bombardment of the coast, Wilberforce discovered the woman’s killing.
He decided to use the example for a speech he we was about to make in parliament in 1792 during a debate on the abolition of the slave trade.
Abolitionists faced powerful opposition. Every part of official society was saturated with wealthy men who made their money from the blood and filth of slavery.
Rogers tells us that the defeat of an earlier abolition bill was greeted in Bristol with “a cannonade, fireworks, a bonfire and a half-day holiday. The elite, at least, had spoken.”
But there were two counter‑forces. One was the resistance of slaves themselves. The other was abolitionist solidarity from the workers and the poor in countries such as Britain and America.
When Wilberforce rose to speak he was backed by mass petitions against the trade. “In some parts of Britain,” says Rogers, “as many as a quarter to a third of adult males signed up. In Manchester the proportion climbed to nearly 50 percent.”
Rogers emphasises how the revelations of the horrors of slavery chimed with those who “struggled against the new work discipline of the industrial revolution”.
But Wilberforce’s motion failed. MPs voted for gradual abolition, in the safe knowledge that the House of Lords, the monarchy and the courts would stretch out the lifetime of slavery—as indeed they did.
A few years earlier they had avoided abolition by voting for regulation of the slave trade.
MPs set out rules to administer “properly” the buying and selling of humans with all the attendant violence and slaughter.
But following the Commons debate, newspapers in Britain and America picked up the Kimber case and he faced trial for murder. This was a surprise. Even the implication that slaves had rights as people rather than cargo was shocking to many.
Supposedly refined society—the celebrated and gilded people—came out to back Kimber.
One of those in court was William, Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III and a committed supporter of slavery.
He smirked and laughed during the prosecution witnesses’ evidence.
Horatio Nelson, later to expire at the Battle of Trafalgar, joined the duke at the trial. He described himself as “one of the good old school” that was “taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions”.
Also crowding the court to support Kimber were MPs, bankers, sugar and tobacco merchants and ship owners.
The chair of the judges, Sir James Marriott, left the jury in no doubt as to his views. “A ship is a little government in which there can be no hope of any security for any man without a rapid and strong occasional exertion of an absolute power, placed in one man,” he lectured.
Through bribery and bullying the slavery lobby marshalled the evidence of ten petty officers and seafarers who swore that Kimber was a decent captain.
Some said the woman had been suspended from the mast for her own good and to aid her circulation. The prosecution, presented by a state justice establishment made up largely of anti‑abolitionists, was ill-prepared and failed to produce key witnesses.
After the cross-examination of the prosecution case, judge Marriott declared he had heard enough. After just five hours of testimony he instructed the jury to find Kimber not guilty, which they immediately did.
The slavers rejoiced. A caricature of Wilberforce was produced showing him with a blindfold and the ears of an ass.
He was shown clutching petitions signed by Newgate prisoners, Cornish tin miners and Manchester schoolboys—people elite society saw as of no worth.
One of those who gave evidence against Kimber was tried for perjury, convicted and sentenced to seven years exile.
But change was coming. The same month that Kimber arrived in west Africa, the slaves of Haiti rose in revolt.
As Kimber’s trial finished the Haitian rebels controlled a third of the island, the most profitable slave colony in the world.
Led by black revolutionaries Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines, the uprising ended slavery on the island and drove back invading French and British armies.
Developments in the ways in which capitalism made its profits also mattered, but without these revolts the slave trade would have gone on much longer.
This is not Rogers’ argument. He says that the French Revolution and the slave risings delayed the end of the trade because they frightened the moderates into the arms of the reactionaries.
But the Kimber case emphasises that the ruling class was not going to tamely give in to parliamentary manoeuvres by Wilberforce and his allies.
And the parliamentary abolitionists were weak. In 1796 they thought they had sufficient support in parliament to succeed at last.
But slavers offered free opera tickets to some of the bill’s supporters for the night of the vote. Several chose to go to the opera and the bill was defeated by four votes.
The Kimber case underlined the brutality of slavery and the need for struggle to overcome it.
Murder on the Middle Passage—The Trial of Captain Kimber, by Nicolas Rogers £16.99
Bury the Chains—The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery, by Adam Hochschild £16.99
The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery 1776-1848, by Robin Blackburn £19.99
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
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