Public Opinion, the Trial of John Kimber, and Research Ethics

By Hannah Rogers

Time, sentiment, and unreliable witnesses have obfuscated the “truth” of the events that happened on board the slave ship Recovery in 1791. After the death of a slave girl during the voyage, Captain John Kimber found himself and the events on his ship pulled between abolitionist and pro-slavery public opinion.

In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman says of details the case depended on your perspective:

“No one saw the same girl; she was outfitted in a different guise for each who dared look. She appeared as a tortured virgin, a pregnant woman, a syphilitic tart, and a budding saint […] The captain, the surgeon, and the abolitionist all disagreed about what happened on deck of the Recovery, yet they all insisted they were trying to save the girl’s life. In this respect, I am as guilty as the rest. I too am trying to save the girl, not from death or sickness or a tyrant but from oblivion.”[1] (136-137).”

Hartman, using different transcripts of the trial and other documents surrounding the case, tries to reconstruct possibilities in which the dead girl may have existed. She makes the attempt to remember a girl who was mostly forgotten after the court proceedings over her death ended.


Srividhya Swaminathan, writing for the journal Slavery & Abolition, notes that some trials dealing with the slave trade have received more emphasis than others: “The trial of Captain John Kimber has received almost no scholarly attention despite a substantial newspaper record. Instead, scholars have focused on the slave ship Zong as the most evocative symbol of abolitionist discourse”[2] (483).

In her article, Swaminathan looks at the newspaper archives of both cases of the Zong and the Recovery to explore the court of public opinion’s role in the struggle between pro-slavery lobbyists and abolitionists both in Britain and the United States. Through a reconstructed timeline, Swaminathan shows how the events led up to the Kimber trial: William Wilberforce gave a speech in 1792 that detailed atrocities in the slave trade (including the death of the girl on the Recovery), newspapers printed versions of the speech based on reporters’ memories, Kimber himself published a response to salvage his reputation, the captain is soon taken to trial, and then he is acquitted.  Kimber’s name, however, continued to be used as “an example of proslavery excess until 1795. The repercussions of this case on the public imaginary are manifold. A slave-ship captain, though inherently corrupt, was held accountable for his actions on board ship in the court of public opinion. The ‘cargo’ of a slave ship could not be dismissed as merely property” (495-96).

 Although Zong case did not recognize the death of 132 slaves as murders in court, the trial of Kimber at least imagined the possibility of a slave girl’s humanity. Arguably, Kimber’s trial and the events surrounding it had more positive influence on the public, in terms of abolition, than did the case of the Zong massacre.


The case of Kimber inspired the political cartoon by Isaac Cruikshank,  above, which was published shortly after Wilberforce gave his speech in Parliament. As noted by scholars discussing the case, the title’s description of the girl (“a young Negro girl of 15 for her virjen modesty”) valorizes her as an innocent while depicting the crew as callous and cruel; for example, the sailor holding the rope is depicted as saying:  “Dam me if I like it I have a good mind to let go.”

Printed accounts of the trial results were just as biased (one way or another).

In the retelling titled, “The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the murder of two female Negro slaves, on board the Recovery, African slave ship,” the introduction states:

“Whatever the public opinion may be relative to the profecution carried on againft Captain Kimber, who has been (we fuppofe fairly) acquitted by an Englifh Jury, it was evidently a neceflary and a ufeful meafure. It may afford a falutary leffon to thofe captains of flave fhips, and matters of flaves who fhould hereafter attempt to commit fuch horrid outrages as he has been charged with : and it may, from the circumftances here related, (for fuch barbarities have doubtlefs been often praftifed) fill the minds of men univerfally with horror againft the prefent fyftem: until tyranny fhall at length give way to public opinion, and liberty and hap- pinefs be reftored to human beings.”[3] 

On the other hand, the alternate account titled, “The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the supposed murder of an African girl” suggests another side of the trial:
“In vindication of innocence, we have published this trial in the exact manner in which it was held. It is not lengthened to anfwer one party—nor abridged for the other. The public will now judge for themselves […] By exercifing their own judgment they will fee, on what principle CAPTAIN KIMBER (who was fo honourably acquitted) was brought to his trial.”[4]

 As examined by Srividhya, attention was paid to the public opinion. Words and details were carefully chosen to incite the public one way or the other through printed medium, for example, the pro-slavery description states Kimber was “honourably acquitted” rather than the neutral “acquitted.”

Multiple scholars, including those who do not explicitly explore the Kimber trial, point to the use of sentiment by abolitionists to end the slave trade. Presenting certain instances (real or fictional) in a specific way has been seen as method to sway opinions, and public opinion has been noted as a catalyst (or one of the catalysts) for change.
But what about the ethics of sentiment? Or even the recovery of these victims’ existence? In a time that does not resemble the ethical journalism age, how can we trust these reports (which, as has been shown, clearly have a bias in the cause)? If unbiased journalism gives only a snippet of the actual event, how can we trust 18th-century journalism? William Wilberforce’s speech selected details about the girl on the recovery to suit his ends; he heard the story from someone else; the reporters who heard him speak all wrote different accounts due to imperfect memory and notes; the witnesses at the trial had different perspectives; the images of the girl were wrapped up in the culture of the time. What can we really glean from these archives except the mechanisms used to motivate a public in one direction or another?
And, if fact, how much influence did (or do) any of these narratives have on the slave trade and the laws surrounding it?
The cases of slaves chosen were used to make a point by the abolitionists. What does it mean to treat a person (or a group of persons) as an example of a greater horror, especially someone who never intended to become the “face” of a cause? The lives, and more empathetically, the deaths of the slaves in the cases of the Zong and the Recovery became some sort of symbol for a “greater good.”
In telling the story of the slave girl on the Recovery, at least, the abolitionists, the slave ship crew, the reporters attending these events, the illustrators of the “event,” and even the scholars trying to recuperate something of the original girl appear to obfuscate the “real” individual that lived and died more and more. Those who viewed her death as murder, or as a tragedy, or horrific want to recover some meaning from what happened. I’ve asked, in relationship to the events of the slave trade, “what does it mean?” and noted about text “none of us knew what it meant.”
But in trying to find meaning in something we view horrific, trying to find some kind of positive counter to the dehumanizing slave culture, are we making an attempt to comfort ourselves and let go or recuperate the past? Or are we trying to turn something into a didactic lesson or can we find details between the lines that show more to the slave trade than the commodification of human bodies?
I do not have a definitive answer. Throughout reading about the Black Atlantic and researching this case, I’ve come to think about the ethics of research. Researchers and critics do not act in tandem in how they approach their work. Research has clearly been done in this field (and others) without crossing the line between recovering voices and (re)-commodifying the oppressed by imagining and creating a narrative for these individuals. However, in considering this line of research, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the possible problematic turn this research can take and how public and individual bias in archived documents may distort the past.
Although this topic clearly needs more thought, I believe that asking the question of how to approach this research and what considerations need to be taken when writing about specific events will help build a stronger foundation for the scholarly work done in all areas.

[1] Hartman, Saidiya. “The Dead Book.” Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.

[2] Swaminathan, Srividhya. “Reporting Atrocities: A Comparison of the Zong and the Trial of Captain John Kimber.” Slavery & Abolition 31.4 (2010): 483–499. Print.

[3] The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the murder of two female Negro slaves, on board the Recovery, African slave ship

[4] Kimber, John. The trial of Captain John Kimber, for the supposed murder of an African girl, at the Admiralty sessions, before the Hon. Sir James Marriott … and Sir William Ashurst … on Thursday, June 7, 1792. London, [1792]. The Making Of The Modern World. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

One thought on “Public Opinion, the Trial of John Kimber, and Research Ethics”

  1. As I read through this, I cannot help but think about how much the human rights/humanitarianism movement has come to share in the same problems that you highlight here. The mobilization of affect through singular images like this and the telling of the “true stories” seem to be two of the primary engines of humanitarian economies. Aside from the very real detriment to already weak governments that massive aid regimes can have (e.g. Haiti), this same problem of representation also lingers. Peter Redfield at UNC and a few others (Didier Fassin, Erica Bornstein) have been at the front of an emerging “anthropology of humanitarianism” that tries to take some of this on. A really fine example of this kind of work might be Erica Caple James’s “Democratic Insecurities” (2010), in which she describes what she calls “compassion economies” operating in Haiti. It might be a helpful exploration of contemporary issues that would help us to reflect on the problems that we seem to be able to detect but struggle to pin down regarding the slave trade, abolitionism, and our own research.

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