John Kimber was the captain of a British slave ship who was tried for murder in 1792, after the abolitionist William Wilberforce accused him of killing two female slaves. Kimber was acquitted, but the trial gained much attention in the press, and established that slave ships' crew could be tried for murder.
Alleged murders 
In 1791, John Kimber was the captain of the Recovery, a slave ship of 189 tons from Bristol, England. The Recovery travelled from Bristol to New Calabar in West Africa, where it collected approximately 300 slaves who were to be sold at Grenada in the Caribbean. The vessel left Africa on 1 September, and arrived at Grenada on 28 October, by which time 27 of the slaves had died.
"Dancing the slaves" was a regular part of the routine of a slave ship on the Middle Passage, and aimed to ensure that slaves who were confined to the extremely cramped and unhygienic conditions below decks received at least a degree of regular exercise. Those who refused to take part were flogged.
On 2 April 1792, William Wilberforce made a speech to parliament at the end of a debate on the abolition of the slave trade. In his speech, Wilberforce gave two examples of the atrocities associated with the slave trade, aiming to earn the sympathy of his fellow members of parliament. Firstly, he described an attack on Calabar by British slave ships, which bombarded the city in order to force it to lower the price of slaves. The second example was the case of Captain Kimber, who Wilberforce alleged had murdered a slave girl who refused to dance for him. In his speech, Wilberforce emphasised the innocence of the girl, and downplayed the accusation (subsequently reported in the press) that she suffered from gonorrhea. Isaac Cruikshank's depiction of Kimber's assault on a "virjen" also emphasises her innocence in the face of Kimber's aggression and moral corruption.
On 7 April 1792, Kimber placed advertisements in several newspapers proclaiming his innocence. Reports of the charges against Kimber soon began to appear in the press, as did accounts of his trial. Such reports soon crossed the Atlantic, and appeared in ten American newspapers.
Kimber was arrested in Bristol on 8 April, and taken to London the next day. His trial at the Admiralty Sessions of the Old Bailey began on 7 June 1792, and was attended by many prominent public figures, including Horatio Nelson.
The trial revealed little about Kimber's alleged crimes beyond what had been stated in parliament and the press. The attention soon turned to the key witnesses testifying against Kimber. One witness, Thomas Dowling, was revealed to have a vendetta against Kimber; another, named Stephen Devereux, was a former mutineer. Three witnesses attested to Kimber's good character, but no witness was called to affirm that Kimber had not ordered a slave girl to be tied up and flogged. Kimber was acquitted, and in 1793 Dowling and Devereux were tried for perjury, with Dowling being found guilty. Several accounts of the trial were published, which were supportive of Kimber to varying degrees.
Kimber pursued Wilberforce for damages after the trial, and continually loitered outside his house. Wilberforce later noted that Kimber's acquittal had been one of the few instances in the abolition campaign that had brought him distress.
Historical significance 
In 1781, the crew of the slave ship Zong deliberately killed approximately 132 slaves. None of the crew was ever tried for murder, and the subsequent court cases established the legality of their act. Both the killings and the court cases received scarcely any attention in the media or in parliament.
It is, therefore, significant that only a decade after the Zong massacre, the captain of a slave ship found himself on trial for murder, in a case that received widespread attention in the newspapers. Furthermore, as the Public Advertiser commented after Kimber's trial, the case had at least established that those who killed slaves could be tried for murder.
- Marshall 1972, p. 207.
- Richardson 1996, p. 193.
- Maccotta 2007, pp. 132-3.
- Marshall 1972, p. 206.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 487.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 489.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 490.
- Sugden 2011, p. 399.
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 493
- Swaminathan 2010, p. 494.
- Hague 2008, p. 210.
- Marshall 1972, p. 211.
- Swaminathan 2010, pp. 483, 496.
- Swaminathan 2010, pp. 483, 487.
- Hague, William (2008). William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner. London: HarperCollins.
- Maccotta, Carole (2007). "Dancing and exercise". In Toyin Falola and Amanda Warnock. Encyclopedia of the Middle Passage. Greenwood Publishing.
- Marshall, Peter (1972). "The Anti-Slave Trade Movement in Bristol". In McGrath, Patrick. Bristol in the Eighteenth Century. Newton Abbott: David & Charles. pp. 185–214.
- Richardson, David, ed. (1996). Bristol, Africa and the Eighteenth-century Slave Trade to America. 4: the final years. Bristol: Bristol Records Society.
- Sugden, John (2011). Nelson: A Dream of Glory. London: Random House.
- Swaminathan, S. (2010). "Reporting Atrocities: A Comparison of the Zong and the Trial of Captain John Kimber". Slavery & Abolition 31 (4): 483–499. doi:10.1080/0144039X.2010.521336.