No. 40 of #50cases.
It’s 1769. The British Empire is expanding, trade is booming and lawyers aren’t the only people wearing curly wigs. The slave trade is an integral and profitable part of the economic exploitation of the colonies. A North African is purchased by a wealthy customs officer in Boston and brought as a slave back to Britain, where he is also baptized. So far, so normal. But this slave’s name is James Somerset, and he is about to make history.
Somerset escapes his master in 1771, but is recaptured and imprisoned on a ship. His three godparents from his English baptism bring legal proceedings to determine whether his imprisonment without trial is lawful. This is an unprecedented challenge against the treatment of slaves and attracts a great deal of attention from the press. Members of the public pour out donations to lawyers on both sides, raising the stakes even higher.
The judge, Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice, decides that no person, slave or otherwise, can be removed from England against his will. Not only that, but he declares chattel slavery itself – the idea of people as property – is not supported by English law.
This was a radical precedent. With hindsight, the real power of the case lay in the way it was treated over the following decades. It was gradually portrayed to mean that ‘on English soil, no man is a slave’, providing a boon to the abolitionist movement. It was ultimately a key milestone in the journey towards the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807, and remains a part of the framework in which we continue to strive to eradicate slavery today.