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.” (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” (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.”
“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.”
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.”
 Hartman, Saidiya. “The Dead Book.” Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. Print.
 Swaminathan, Srividhya. “Reporting Atrocities: A Comparison of the Zong and the Trial of Captain John Kimber.” Slavery & Abolition 31.4 (2010): 483–499. Print.
 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, . The Making Of The Modern World. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.