Somersett’s Case began a process which, within thirty years, ended with the abolition of the slave trade throughout Britain’s growing empire.
WHEN Charles Stewart, a customs officer, was in Boston (at that time a town in Massachusetts Bay, a British Crown Colony in America) he purchased an African slave named James Somersett, and brought him back to England. There the young man escaped.
After fifty-six days on the run, James was recaptured and imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica. But the newly-baptised Christian now had three eager godparents, and a powerful friend in veteran anti-slavery campaigner Granville Sharp, who helped them to issue a writ of ‘Habeas Corpus’, demanding that Stewart explain himself to a judge.
The case came before Lord Mansfield, who spent a month in sober deliberation before declaring, on 22nd June 1772, that he could find nothing in English common law or Parliamentary law that recognised the rights of slave-owners such as Charles Stewart.
James was set free, his many well-wishers celebrated, and slavery in the English-speaking world began to crumble.