Historian Roger Ekirch (seated) and a BBC camera crew member rehearse in the Amstel House in New Castle, Del. On the book cradle on the table is the trial transcript from Special Collections.

Documentary source

BBC documentary films a Library transcript of 18th century trial

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3:11 p.m., Oct. 27, 2011--An 18th century trial transcript from the University of Delaware Library Special Collections was filmed by the BBC on May 16, as part of a documentary on James Annesley, directed by Tim Dunn. 

Annesley was an 18th century claimant to the Irish Earl of Anglesey and the heir to a substantial family fortune and estate. In 1728, shortly after the death of his father, James Annesley was kidnapped and sold into indentured slavery in New Castle, Del., allegedly on the order of his uncle, Richard Annesley, who sought to seize his nephew’s inheritance. James Annesley labored as a plantation slave for 12 years before escaping and returning to Ireland in 1741, where he sued for his inheritance. 

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The ensuing court case captured the attention of much of Ireland and England. It pitted the impoverished James Annesley against one of the wealthiest nobles in Ireland. Throughout the trial, Richard Annesley used his influence to suborn witnesses to commit perjury on his behalf. He even contracted hit men to murder James Annesley on several occasions and tried to use a hunting accident as means to prosecute James Annesley for homicide. The initial trial testimony lasted two weeks -- at the time the longest trial known to the British court system -- and the appeals process dragged on for another eight years.

James Annesley may also have served as a real-life inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1888 novel, Kidnapped. In Kidnapped, the protagonist, David Balfour, is kidnapped on the orders of his uncle, Ebenezer, and shipped to the Carolinas for a life of indentured slavery, so that Ebenezer can seize Balfour’s inheritance. Like James Annesley, David Balfour returns home to challenge his uncle and reclaim his rightful estates, although David Balfour is spared the dozen years of slavery (he escapes the ship while in transit and has adventures in the Scottish highlands), as well as the court system (he tricks his uncle into revealing his scheme). 

No documentary evidence survives to definitively link Robert Louis Stevenson to the James Annesley trial. However, scholars and contemporary reviewers have both noted the similarities between the two stories and concluded that it is probable that Stevenson knew of James Annesley and modeled his story on him. Ironically, for many years scholars assumed that James Annesley’s saga, too, was fictional, as the documentary evidence for the trial was soon eclipsed by a popular novel, Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman, which was a sensationalized fictionalization of James Annesley’s life, written in the first person so as to appear to be composed by Annesley himself. 

Interviewed for this segment in the documentary was A. Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virginia Tech, whose 2010 biography, Birthright: The True Story That Inspired Kidnapped, was the first scholarly account of James Annesley in decades. 

The University of Delaware Library owns a 1744 printed transcript of the James Annesley trial, The Trial in ejectment between Campbell Craig, lessee of James Annesley, esq; and others, plaintiffs, and the Right Honourable Richard earl of Anglesey, defendant […], which was loaned for the duration of the filming. The trial transcript featured prominently in the interview. Ekirch quoted extensively from the transcript over the course of the interview, and the printed text itself was also filmed in close-up for inclusion in the final cut. The U.K. premiere of the documentary was at 9 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 10, on BBC.

In addition to the James Annesley trial transcript, the University of Delaware Library Special Collections also owns first editions of Kidnapped (1888) and Memoirs of an Unfortunate Young Nobleman (1743). A copy of Birthright can be found in the Morris Library.

The filming was attended by Special Collections librarians Jaime Margalotti, senior assistant librarian, and Alexander C. Johnston, assistant librarian, who were present to assist in the loan and handling of the volume.

About Special Collections 

Holdings of the Special Collections Department of the University of Delaware Library include books, manuscripts, maps, prints, photographs, broadsides, periodicals, pamphlets, ephemera and realia from the 15th to the 21st century. The collections complement the Library's general collections with particular strengths in the subject areas of the arts; English, Irish and American literature; history and Delawareana; horticulture; and history of science and technology. The University of Delaware Archives is separately administered and comprises University records and history of the institution.

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