James Somerset, the fugitive slave from Virginia who ended slavery in England

Mildred Europa Taylor June 22, 2022
Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795. Public domain image

In 1771, James Somerset (or Sommersett), a Boston slave brought to England, was recaptured after he tried to escape from his owner. He was put on board a ship bound for Jamaica, where he was to be sold. But he had friends in England, who used a writ of habeas corpus to have him removed from the ship before it sailed.

Somerset was brought to the Court of King’s Bench, where a judge eventually ruled on this day in 1772 that Somerset was to be released since no English law sanctioned slavery in Great Britain. The landmark ruling in Stewart v. Somerset would help end slavery in England. Here’s how.

Somerset was the property of a Boston customs official called Charles Stewart. The North American customs collector had bought Somerset from a Virginia plantation owner before bringing him to England in 1769. It was not uncommon in 18th-century England for foreign slaveowners to bring their slaves to England, where almost everyone accepted the status of the slaves as their owners’ property.

Two years after Somerset was brought to England, he fled his owner but was caught on November 26, 1771, and incarcerated on the prison ship Ann and Mary which was bound for Jamaica. Somerset had at the time been baptized a Christian in England, and so his godparents went to court to help get him freed. Granville Sharp, an English campaigner against slavery, applied for and was granted a writ of habeas corpus which ordered the captain of the ship on which Somerset was incarcerated to bring Somerset to the King’s Bench in January 1772 to determine his legal status. 

Sharp assembled a team of five lawyers to defend Somerset. The lawyers argued that no law authorized slavery in England, adding that even though slavery was tolerated in the colonies, the Court of King’s Bench was bound to apply the law of England. Stewart’s lawyers argued that property rights “took precedence over human rights”.

The case dragged on as it was repeatedly adjourned. On June 22, 1772, Lord Mansfield, the chief justice, ruled in favor of Somerset, saying that slavery had no basis in natural law or in English law. According to the New England Historical Society, Mansfield found slavery “so odious” that it could only be allowed if a law is passed by Parliament to legalise it.

“The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law [statute]… Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Mansfield further ruled that “no master ever was allowed here (England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service…therefore the man must be discharged.”

Somerset therefore won his freedom. His case set off a chain of events that would ultimately end slavery in England. Initially, many enslaved men and women misunderstood Mansfield’s ruling to mean that they were emancipated in Britain. This was wrong as the decision was that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain and sold into slavery.

Still, the ruling, as pointed out by the New England Historical Society, “sent American Southerners into the patriot camp, fearing that England would take away their slaves. And it inspired enslaved men and women to sue for their freedom in the northern colonies.”

The ruling also initially did not do much from stopping slave owners from recapturing their runaway slaves and shipping them back to the colonies. Enslaved Blacks were still being bought and sold in England. In 1785, Mansfield himself ruled that “black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour”, according to Nationalarchives.gov.uk.

In the end, the debate over slavery moved to the British Parliament and the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act made slave trade illegal. It took another 21 years for almost all Black men and women held in bondage in the British empire to be granted their freedom.

As for the American Colonies, it would take a bloody Civil War to end slavery.

No one knows what became of Somerset after his trial but some historians believe that he died in Great Britain as a free man around 1772.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 22, 2022


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