This is such an unusual story that I’d certainly love to get more information from any of you. Recently, I was researching court cases from the 18th century and came across the most horrific example of people being forced into slavery. A London man called John Smith had kidnapped two youngsters, ‘trepanned’ them, and then shipped the unfortunates off into slavery. Lobotomised in other words and sent across the Atlantic.
I had to read the court account several times to see if I’d got the wrong end of the stick. But sure enough, there it was in black and white. Young men zombified in some terrible procedure and then sent out of their wits to a life of hell in the New World.
On 15 January 1700, the central criminal court in London – better known as the Old Bailey – heard the case against London labourer John Smith. There were two main crimes under consideration.
Firstly, he was accused of kidnapping a Jewish man from Ceuta in Morocco who had come to England to visit friends. His name was Joseph Portall. He’d arrived in the country about two days before and Smith bumped into him at the Exchange, a commercial marketplace in the old City of London.
Lobotomised into slavery down a backstreet
Presumably Smith befriended Portall after which he was lured back to an “office” near St. Mary-Hill. That’s a small street by an ancient church still standing though rebuilt be Sir Christopher Wren after the 1666 Great Fire of London.
There Portall became Smith’s prisoner and at some point, was trepanned. Now this is the word that is used in the court case and there’s only definition I have for being trepanned. That is a person’s head being bored into with an instrument in a similar manner to a lobotomy. If anybody has another definition for this term – I’m all ears.
The same fate befell a 16-year-old “Christian youth” called Samuel Cooper who was also sent off into slavery after being trepanned. Cooper’s parents had sent the young man off to church on a Sunday morning and never saw him again. The court heard that he was taken on to a ship with Portall bound for the British American colony of Maryland. This would have meant forced labour on a plantation in the New World.
Potentially hundreds lobotomised into slavery
Most disturbingly, it seemed that Smith had illegally transported potentially hundreds of people to the colonies from his office. Whether they were all trepanned or sent against their will wasn’t entirely clear in the trial. Smith tried to argue that they consented to what happened to them. Highly unlikely of course.
Smith was only apprehended because he was turned over to the authorities by a certain Jacob Kysor. In court, Smith couldn’t contain his rage towards Kysor and declared “he wisht he had his Heart Broyled on Coals, for he would Eat it, and Drink his Blood after it”. Original spelling from the court transcript by the way. That comment was good enough for the jury to find him guilty.
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What shocks me is that he wasn’t condemned to death. Given how easily it was to be hanged for any number of crimes in 1700. But especially as he’d committed such an appalling crime. But instead, he was fined and put in the pillory to be pelted by the public. He may also have been whipped at the same time.
I would love to know your insights into this story. By all means have a look at the court case. Were these people actually lobotomised into slavery or is there another way of reading this story? Because if it’s true as reported at the time, then this for me is a new and sick perspective on the dreadful history of slavery.