Granville Sharp (1735-1813), a clergyman’s son from Durham, was a vigorous anti-slavery campaigner, whose perseverance saved many lives. Among them was that of Thomas Lewis, whose fate was decided at a sensational trial on 20th February, 1771.
AN African boy named Thomas Lewis was snatched at night by two boatmen working for Robert Stapylton,* a wealthy plantation-owner from Chelsea. Thomas was gagged with a stick, tied up, and put aboard a ship bound for Jamaica.
Granville Sharp got to hear of it from Mrs Banks,* Stapylton’s next-door neighbour. He rushed over to Gravesend, but the ship had moved, so Sharp obtained a writ of Habeas Corpus, and served it on Stapylton at Spithead, just as the vessel was to leave the country.
Thomas was discovered chained to the main mast, bathed in tears and gazing back helplessly at England.
Sharp tried to settle out of court, but Stapylton refused, hoping to bankrupt Sharp with legal costs.
With his customary caution, the judge, Lord Mansfield, asked the jury to rule not on slavery itself, but on whether anyone could prove ownership of Thomas. The jury decided that no one could, and Mansfield set Thomas free.
* Dorothea Banks was the wife of Sir Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with captain James Cook.