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The Somerset Case
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After Granville Sharp's success in the case of Jonathan Strong , he was on the look-out for a test case which could establish once and for all that a slave was legally free as soon as he or she set foot in England. In the Somerset case of 1771, he felt he had found it. James Somerset was the slave of Charles Stewart, a customs official from Boston who brought him to London . Somerset ran away from his owner after two years but was quickly recaptured, and Stewart had him imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary , whose captain was to sell him into slavery in Jamaica . Three people witnessed Somerset 's capture and reported it to the Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, who ordered Somerset to be kept in the country till the case could be decided. Somerset himself approached Sharp, who agreed to help in the case.

Sharp produced five advocates to speak for Somerset , all of whom refused payment. They argued there was no such thing as slavery under British law – “no man at this day is , or can be , a slave in England ” and that the laws of the American colonies had no force in this country. Stewart's lawyers argued that Somerset was his master's property, and if all the slaves now in English ports were declared free, many thousands of pounds would be lost to their owners. It also came out in questioning that a group of West Indian merchants were paying Stewart's legal expenses.

When Lord Mansfield came to sum up he frankly confessed to being in difficulties. If he decided in Somerset 's favour, he risked inflicting huge losses on English people who now owned slaves. But if he decided that England was bound by American laws on slavery, he was setting a dangerous legal precedent. He postponed giving his verdict for a further month and threw out a very strong hint to Stewart that he might like to put an end to the matter now by freeing his slave. He went on: “If… he shall insist on demanding a final judgement, we shall not fail to give it faithfully, however irksome and inconvenient.”

Stewart refused to take the hint. On 22 nd June 1772 , in a crowded court, Mansfield read out a prepared statement. He went over previous contradictory legal rulings and opinions about slavery, and concluded that the only question here was whether Somerset 's master had the right to sell him. In England , he said, “no Master ever was allowed to take a Slave by force to be sold abroad, because he had deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever”. He ruled that Somerset was free to go. A newspaper report at the time described the reaction of the black people present: they bowed to the judges' bench, “and shaking each other by the hand, congratulated themselves upon… their happy lot that allowed them to breathe the free air of England .”

In fact, Lord Mansfield in his very careful speech had not declared all slaves free: he had only said that they could not be forced to leave the country. But the Mansfield decision was widely seen as meaning the end of slavery, not least by slaves themselves, many of whom celebrated by leaving their masters.




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