The Somerset Case Judgement
The 22nd of June 1772 AD
The prosperity of England in the 18th and into the early 19th century depended enormously and shamefully on slavery - her West Indian and some American colonies largely worked by slave labour, the sugar and cotton industries reliant on slaves. Consider that the next time you read Jane Austen . It would not be until 1807 that the law banning slave trading throughout the Empire was brought in, and not until 1834 that slave holding was abolished, albeit with many exceptions. Yet in 1772 the Somerset (or Somersett) case had proved in law that in England at least slavery was illegal. It was a tragedy for millions of the enslaved that as could well have been the case English colonies, in theory supposed to conform to English law, were not forced to follow that ruling.
James Somerset was a black slave brought to England by his ‘owner’, Boston customs official Charles Stewart. In 1771, two years after their arrival in this country, Somerset escaped, but was retaken. Stewart prepared to ‘export’ him, Somerset duly put on board a ship ready to depart. Anti-slavery campaigners obtained a writ of habeas corpus that eventually led to a hearing before the Court of King’s Bench which began in February 1772.
Lawyers fighting for Somerset argued that no law permitting slavery existed in England, and moreover no contract between Somerset and Stewart could exist as Somerset would not have agreed to it, and without consent by both parties there is no valid contract. Those for Stewart argued that property rights were of paramount importance.
Chief Justice Lord Mansfield found to his eternal credit (and against previous rulings here that slaves were mere property) slavery to be odious to the law of the country, and that local law must be supreme rather than the law of any of the colonies applying while a slave was in England. Somerset was freed.
As noted above, this ruling was not applied to our colonies. But at least it provided a beacon of hope for abolitionists; and of course it freed one human being from slavery.
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