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.