John Simpson, a black drummer, was murdered in Aberdeen on the night of Thursday 3 September 1807. Was it a racist crime? Well, there were surely racist elements involved. After all, slavery with all its connotations was rife then so it would be surprising if something as simple as that did not influence attitudes.
Two years earlier, in 1805, a bill to abolition slavery went through the House of Commons but the House of Lords stopped it. Needless to say lots of countries abolished slavery years before Britain, ever cognisant of the wishes of propertied and wealthy bigots, so it was only in 1834 that most but not all British slavery was ended.
What happened that night in Aberdeen might have had no direct links to racism. It is very difficult to say but there was a hint of it.
The local paper described the incident as “a dreadful affray” that occurred at a brothel kept by Margaret Creek near the Justice Port involving John Simpson (sic) a drummer with the 29th regiment and other soldiers.
I put ‘sic’ (as it is written) after the name of the murdered drummer because that is how it is recorded in the Aberdeen press but this may be an error for Simpson is a familiar local name whereas it is as Sampson he is recorded in other documents – but then again this might be an error.
Simpson or Sampson was born in Barbados in 1782 and enlisted as a 16 years old. When he died in Aberdeen the 25 year old was one of several from his regiment touring Britain to recruit men into the military in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when there was a desperate need for men to fight overseas.
Black troops were not uncommon in the British army. From the end of the 18th century large numbers of African slaves and the sons of slaves were bought up to serve in British regiments. The going price for a male slave in 1795 was around £80. Simpson joined the army in 1798 when the British army were in the Caribbean – and looking to recruit, as always. Although these black recruits were mainly treated like their white counterparts they were still subject to slave laws until 1807. Even then black recruits signed up to the army were there for life while whites could leave after 7 years. Not all joined so much as were abducted e.g. several young boys at Guadeloupe in the Caribbean in late 1700s – permission to hold onto them was given – by the King of Great Britain.
Some black boys were taken on specifically to be drummers and later bugle boys. The 29th Regiment of Foot to which Simpson was attached had several black drummers in its ranks. Black soldiers in the British army were mainly foot soldiers either incorporated into mixed regiments or segregated ones such as African Corps and 1st and 2nd Black Garrison Companies.
The same month that Simpson was killed another black drummer was verbally attacked in a London street, “Well Blackie, what news from the devil?” someone shouted at him. The drummer retaliated by knocking down his abuser with the words, “He sent you that. How do you like it?”
Racism went right through society. It was reported in 1825 that when the leader of the Royal Band planned to take on a black man to beat the kettle-drum he was thwarted by the king who had “an unconquerable antipathy to blacks being near his person.” The band leader, a man called Cramer, was a little put-out and gave the role to a European with a dark skin. When the king first saw him in the music room he was startled and said to Cramer, “I see, Sir, you wish to accustom me to a black drummer by degrees.” The king in question was George IV, best known for being debauched, fat and profligate to which we should add – and racist.
Drummers, by virtue of their ability to beat a drum presumably, were also charged with carrying out corporal punishment – whipping colleagues facing punishment and were not always liked for that reason alone. In the case of Simpson there were other circumstances which might have influenced his attackers which I will come to later. What is clear is that the extent of violence perpetrated against him suggests strong antagonism towards the man by others stationed at the barracks in Aberdeen.
Put simply Simpson was stoned and butchered; his head and face were slashed and his skull fractured in two places. The wound that killed him was a long blade, possibly a bayonet, run through his back with such force it pierced his heart.
Three members of the Argyleshire Regiment of Militia stationed at Aberdeen barracks – James Graham, Donald McCallum and Daniel McPherson were subsequently arrested and charged with the murder of Simpson, described in the charge sheet as “a negro and drummer in the 29th Regiment of Foot” and they appeared at the High Court the following January. All pleaded not guilty.
It was not only Simpson’s appearance that made him a weel kent face in pale-skinned Aberdeen early in the 19th century. He was a big man, powerfully-built, and described in the Aberdeen Journal as ” a very formidable character” whatever that was meant to mean. He had a reputation as a boxer who exercised his prowess with a punch that fellow soldiers were keen to test themselves against; Simpson invariably won these contests. During one such challenge he ran at his opponent and pushed his head between the man’s legs then stood up with the unfortunate challenger hoisted onto Simpson’s shoulders. Then he chucked the man down on the ground fracturing his skull and killing him as a result. This episode made Simpson enemies.
Why he reacted so violently is not explained in the local press but it was noted he bore them a grudge. Why would that be? Racist taunts could be the answer. He probably discovered there is no reasoning with racists and responded the way that came easiest to him, through the power of his punches.
On the night of the 3rd of September around ten soldiers were allowed out of their barracks in the early hours and they headed straight for a brothel owned by Margaret Creek. Some of these soldiers took their weapons with them which suggests premeditation although that was denied in court. Those charged claimed only to have gone to the house to buy drink – albeit the middle of the night- but then as soon as they got to the house a window was smashed and bedding slashed in the search for Simpson. The rampaging soldiers shouted for Simpson to appear, “put out the black ——–.” This taunt succeeded and Simpson emerged to face his assailants but was immediately knocked over by a stone thrown at his head. As he lay unconscious he was dragged from the house and badly beaten and slashed and his skull fractured in two places.
At the trial the defence lawyers for the three charged with murder proceeded to tarnish the character and honesty of the two witnesses – brothel-keeper, Margaret Creek and a man called Peter Skinner.
A Counsel for the defence told how Skinner had three years earlier pleaded guilty to robbing a corpse. Skinner had come upon the body of flax dresser Francis Mollison at the beach and stole the deceased’s silver shoe buckles. He was subsequently placed in the pillory but made the best of it by pulling funny faces to the amusement of the public. After this he was transferred to prison before being banished for seven years but when he returned to the city before the end of that term he was given a public whipping. In his defence it was revealed that Skinner had been tried without a jury and was summarily sentenced by magistrates and that sentence was considered harsh.
As for Margaret Creek her word was questioned because of her occupation as keeper of ” a disorderly house” but she was allowed to give her account of events.
We know Simpson had enemies at the barracks, men who used racist language, but we do not know the attitude of members of the jury towards him or how they regarded the two witnesses. We do know the jurors rejected the not guilty pleas of the men charged because they did not return a not guilty verdict instead the jury found the case not proven. As a result the three accused were released.
A racist murder? Perhaps, but whatever drummer John Simpson got no justice in Aberdeen.
Refs:The Black Kalendar of Aberdeen