James Somerset (or Sommersett), a Boston slave transported to England in 1771, was apprehended after attempting to flee from his master. He was loaded onto a ship and sent to Jamaica, where he would be bought and sold. His English allies, however, used a writ of habeas corpus to take him from the ship before it sailed.
A judge ultimately decided on this day in 1772 that Somerset should be released because no English law permitted slavery in Great Britain after Somerset had been hauled before the Court of King’s Bench. Slavery in England would be abolished thanks to the historic Stewart v. Somerset decision.
A Boston customs agent by the name of Charles Stewart owned Somerset. Before transporting Somerset to England in 1769, the North American customs officer purchased Somerset from a Virginia plantation owner. Foreign enslavers frequently brought their slaves to England in the eighteenth century, where practically everyone recognized the slaves as the property of their owners.
Somerset escaped his owner two years after being taken to England, but on November 26, 1771, he was apprehended and imprisoned on the prison ship Ann and Mary, which was sailing to Jamaica. Because Somerset had been baptized as a Christian in England at the time, his godparents intervened in court to secure his release. A writ of habeas corpus was requested and granted by English anti-slavery activist Granville Sharp, who instructed the captain of the ship Somerset was imprisoned on to bring Somerset before the King’s Bench in January 1772 to ascertain his legal status.
To defend Somerset, Sharp put together a group of five attorneys. The attorneys contended that even while slavery was permitted in the colonies, the Court of King’s Bench was required to uphold English law because there was no law in England that approved it. Property rights “took precedent over human rights,” according to Stewart’s legal counsel.
The case dragged on due to numerous adjournments. The chief justice, Lord Mansfield, decided in Somerset’s favor on June 22, 1772, stating that neither natural law nor English law supported slavery. Mansfield believed slavery to be “so repulsive” that it could only be tolerated if legislation was issued by Parliament legalizing it, according to the New England Historical Society.
The state of slavery is of such a type that it can only be established by positive legislation [statute], and cannot be brought about for any moral or political motives. Therefore, despite any drawbacks that may result from the ruling, I am unable to claim that English law permits or approves of this situation, and the black must be released.
In addition, Mansfield stated that “no owner here (in England) was ever permitted to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he defected from his service…therefore the man must be discharged.”
Somerset was so granted his freedom. His lawsuit started a series of events that eventually led to the abolition of slavery in England. Many enslaved men and women initially believed that Mansfield’s decision meant they were free in Britain. This was incorrect because it was decided that no slave may be taken from Britain forcibly and sold into slavery.
However, the decision “moved American Southerners into the patriot camp, terrified that England would take their slaves away,” as the New England Historical Society noted. Additionally, it motivated men and women who were slaves to file claims for freedom in the northern colonies.
Additionally, the verdict initially did little to deter slave owners from apprehending their escaped slaves and transporting them back to the colonies. In England, Black enslaved people were still being purchased and sold. According to Nationalarchives.gov.uk, Mansfield himself said in 1785 that “black slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labor.”
The fight over slavery ultimately proceeded to the British Parliament, where the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed, outlawing the slave trade. Nearly all Black men and women trapped in servitude throughout the British Empire had to wait another 21 years to be released.
Slavery could not be abolished in the American Colonies without a brutal Civil War.
Nobody knows what happened to Somerset following his trial, but some historians think he passed away in freedom in Great Britain about 1772.