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Africanus Maxwell

Reference number DX17/1/15

Within a scrapbook of local ephemera, is a newspaper article of the trial of Mallet and Craggs, two sailors whose actions led to the tragic death of a black sailor called Africanus Maxwell. The incident took place between 2am and 3am on Union Quay, North Shields in the summer of 1831.

The headline reads...

Trial at the Newcastle Assizes, February 1832, of George Mallet and William Craggs, Seamen belonging to His Majestys Sloop of War Orestes, for the Murder of Africanus Maxwell, a black man belonging to the same ship on the 13th day of July 1831, at North Shields.

The trial began with both prisoners pleading not guilty to the charge of murder. Seven witnesses were bought to the stand, including Thomas Richmond, a Police Constable and watchman on the quay the morning of the murder.

Extract from witness, Constable Thomas Richmond

An extract from the original archive

Hannah Holmes a servant at Kay's lodging house was the second and most important witness in the trial.  Her lodgings were situated opposite the Quay. She was awoken and clearly heard Africanus say I dont want to fight, I want to go back on board the ship. She and another witness, Jane Martin saw Mallet throw Africanus by his legs over the quay.

In several of the witnesses accounts, it was stated both Mallet and Craggs were intoxicated.

However, the defence in the trial was strong. Members of crew called to the stand emphasised that Mallet and Africanus had always been on good terms with each other. John Thompson, a marine on the Orestes said Maxwell and Mallet had always been on the most intimate of terms with each other.

Africanus died on board the sloop 36 hours after the attack. Mr Monteith, the surgeon confirmed his death was caused by a fracture in his neck caused by the fall.

Despite the overwhelming evidence to lead to a guilty verdict, a unanimous decision of not guilty was made in less than four minutes by the jury.

The Judge discharged (Mallet and Craggs) with an admonition against drunkenness and bad company, from which he said, they had got themselves into serious trouble, and had very narrowly escaped, but hoped it would be a warning to them in the future.

The history behind this injustice remains unknown. The Orestes was built in Portsmouth in 1824, complete with 18 guns and weighing 460 tonnes. In the winter of 1830, the ship was serving on the coast of Galway when it was sent Tyneside to restore order following serious disruptions from the seamen. Orestes was docked in Newcastle for four months, during which time the fate of Africanus was sealed.


A new Key Stage 3 History resource, Justice for Africanus Maxwell is available for schools to download.