The Somerset v Stewart case, also known as Sommersett v Steuart, Somersett’s case, and the Mansfield Judgment, was a pivotal legal case in the history of slavery and abolition. Decided in 1772 by the English Court of King’s Bench, the ruling established that slavery was unsupported by English common law and that an enslaved person could not be forcibly removed from England and sent to Jamaica for sale. This monumental decision had far-reaching effects on the abolitionist movement, the transatlantic slave trade, and the legal status of slavery in the British Empire and beyond.
Background and context
Slavery in England
Before the Somerset v Stewart case, slavery had never been explicitly authorised by statute in England and Wales. However, it was a well-established institution in many parts of the world, particularly in the Americas and the Caribbean, where European colonisers had established vast plantation economies reliant on the labour of enslaved Africans. In the decades leading up to the Somerset case, the status of slavery in England was unclear, and the country had become home to thousands of enslaved people brought from the colonies.
James Somerset and Charles Stewart
James Somerset was an enslaved African who had been purchased by Charles Stewart, a customs officer, in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, a British crown colony in North America. Stewart brought Somerset to England in 1769, where he continued to be treated as a slave. In October 1771, Somerset escaped from Stewart’s custody but was recaptured the following month. Stewart then had Somerset imprisoned on the Ann and Mary, a ship bound for Jamaica, intending to sell him to a plantation for labour.
The legal battle
Habeas Corpus and the Court of King’s Bench
Upon learning of Somerset’s capture and impending removal from England, three godparents from his baptism as a Christian – John Marlow, Thomas Walkin, and Elizabeth Cade – applied to the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. This legal remedy required the person holding another individual in custody to produce the prisoner before the court to determine the legality of their imprisonment. In response to the application, Captain John Knowles of the Ann and Mary brought Somerset before the Court of King’s Bench on 9 December 1771.
Lord Mansfield and the legal arguments
The case was presided over by Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench. Recognising the significance of the case, Mansfield granted Somerset’s counsel time to prepare their arguments, and the hearing was scheduled for 7 February 1772. The case attracted significant public attention, with financial support and donations being provided by both pro- and anti-slavery advocates.
Granville Sharp, an abolitionist layman who sought test cases against the legal justifications for slavery, was a key supporter of Somerset. During the hearings, five advocates appeared on behalf of Somerset, including Francis Hargrave, a young lawyer making his debut with the case. Somerset’s counsel argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither English common law nor any statutory law recognised its existence, rendering it unlawful in England. They also contended that English contract law did not allow a person to enslave themselves, nor could any contract be binding without the individual’s consent.
In contrast, Charles Stewart’s lawyers argued that property rights were paramount and that freeing all black people in England, estimated at around 15,000, would be dangerous.
The judgment and its significance
Lord Mansfield’s decision
After considering both sides of the argument, Lord Mansfield retired to deliberate on his decision. On 22 June 1772, he delivered his judgment, ruling that the state of slavery was “so odious” that it could only be supported by positive law, which was absent in England. As a result, Mansfield declared that Somerset must be discharged from custody.
While the ruling did not explicitly abolish slavery in England, it effectively established that no person could be forcibly removed from the country and sold into slavery. This landmark decision had profound implications for the abolitionist movement, the status of slavery in England, and the wider British Empire.
The Somerset case provided a significant boost for the abolitionist movement and was widely, though incorrectly, interpreted as ending slavery in England. Despite the ruling, slavery continued to exist within the country, and escaped slaves were still subject to recapture. However, the decision garnered substantial support for the abolitionist cause and helped to shift public opinion against the institution of slavery.
Influence in Great Britain and its colonies
The Somerset case became a crucial part of the common law of slavery in the English-speaking world and helped to launch a new wave of abolitionism. The ruling contributed to the notion that slavery was contrary to both natural law and the principles of the English Constitution, a position that abolitionists adopted in their campaigns against the slave trade and the institution of slavery.
Following the Somerset ruling, several other cases in Great Britain and its colonies further challenged the legality of slavery. In Scotland, the 1778 case of Knight v Wedderburn resulted in a ruling that slavery had no existence in Scottish common law. In the Thirteen American Colonies, the Somerset case was widely reported and led to several freedom suits, ultimately contributing to the gradual abolition of slavery in the northern states following the American Revolution.
France and Slavery
The Somerset case has been compared to a significant French case on the same issue, Jean Boucaux v Verdelin, which took place in 1738. In this case, Boucaux, an enslaved man from the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), successfully sued for his freedom after being brought to France by his master. Although the case did not abolish slavery in France, it raised questions about the legality of the institution in the country. It contributed to the broader debate over the morality and legality of slavery in Europe.
The Somerset v Stewart case remains a seminal moment in the history of slavery and abolition. While the decision did not explicitly abolish slavery in England, it significantly challenged the institution and laid the groundwork for future legal battles and abolitionist campaigns. The case’s impact on public opinion, the common law of slavery, and the eventual abolition of the slave trade and slavery in the British Empire and beyond cannot be overstated, underscoring its enduring importance in the struggle for human rights and dignity.