250th Anniversary of Landmark Slavery Legal Case

  • An event is to be held on 22 June at Kenwood to mark the 250th anniversary of a landmark slavery legal case. Kenwood was the home of Lord Mansfield, the judge who made the ruling.
  • New music has been commissioned from Chineke! Junior Orchestra.

An event is being held at Kenwood today to mark the 250th anniversary of the 22 June 1772 Somerset v Stewart ruling, a landmark case which contributed to the abolition of slavery in England. English Heritage has commissioned new music to commemorate the anniversary inspired by the life of James Somerset from the Chineke! Junior Orchestra - Europe’s first majority Black and ethnically diverse orchestra - which will be performed for the first time at an evening event at Kenwood in London on 22 June and will be available to listen to online. 

The event at Kenwood – home of William Murray, Baron (later Earl of) Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench who made the ruling – will also include a discussion of the enduring relevance of the Somerset case today with speakers: Prof Parosha Chandran, the UK’s leading anti-slavery lawyer; Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, pan-African activist and as Special Projects Co-ordinator at Greater London Council credited with developing the recognition of October as Black History Month in the UK; and Chi-chi Nwanoku CBE, Founder and Director of the Chineke! Orchestra. The event will be chaired by Kunle Olulode, English Heritage Trustee and the Director of Voice4Change England; a national advocate for the Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary and community sector.

On 22 June 1772, William Murray, Baron (later Earl of) Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, ruled in the case of Somerset v Stewart that it was unlawful to transport James Somerset, an enslaved African, forcibly out of England. When the verdict was announced, it sent political and legal shockwaves through Britain and its American colonies. Although the decision was technically a narrow one, it was popularly taken to mean that slavery was effectively illegal in England. On 22 June 2022, 250 years later, musicians from the Chineke! Junior Orchestra will perform a new piece of music at Kenwood, inspired by James Somerset and the legal case.

Dr Dominique Bouchard, English Heritage’s Head of Learning and Interpretation, said: “There is no doubt that the Somerset v Stewart ruling in 1772 paved a significant pathway to the eventual abolition of slavery in England and is an extremely important legal case. It’s such a significant ruling and yet many people are unaware of the story of James Somerset and the important part he played in the history of abolition. We’re commemorating this important 250th anniversary connected to Kenwood House with an incredible panel and the Chineke! Musicians, whose creativity will help bring the story to life for the audience and for future visitors to Kenwood House.”

Kunle Olulode, English Heritage Trustee, said: “I first learnt of the case of James Somerset many years ago when reading Peter Fryers classic work ‘Staying Power – The History of Black People in Britain’. The full significance of the legal case in my view has until recently been underestimated by scholars and political commentators alike in the campaign to abolish slavery. I am honoured to be chairing this important landmark event at Kenwood House, former home of Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield and his niece Dido Belle, exactly 250 years after the decision was made. This was an historic decision that lit up the abolitionist cause and put one of the key foundations in place on the way to abolishing slavery in England and parts of the USA.” 

Born around 1741 in West Africa, James Somerset was captured and sold to European slavers when he was approximately eight years old and in 1749, he was sold in Norfolk, Virginia to the Scottish merchant Charles Steuart (Stewart). His name, ‘Somerset’, was most likely given to him by the slave traders. In 1769, Steuart relocated to England, taking Somerset with him. Throughout his enslavement, Somerset was sent on errands by Steuart which took him not only around London but also into the English countryside where he may have met other Black people and as well as white abolitionists. This was probably how Somerset came into contact with Thomas Walkin, Elizabeth Cade and John Marlow, Quakers who became his godparents when he was baptized in August of 1771.

On 1 October 1771 James Somerset left Steuart and refused to return. On 26 November 1771, on Steuart’s orders, he was kidnapped by slave hunters and delivered to Captain John Knowles, captain of the ship Ann and Mary, where he was gaoled awaiting transportation to Jamaica where he was to be sold to a plantation for labour. On 3 December, Somerset’s godparents made an application before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, requiring Captain Knowles to present Somerset to the court. Literally translated, ‘habeas corpus’ means ‘you may have the body’ and was the expression used in the middle ages to bring a prisoner into court. Its purpose since the 17th century was to protect against false imprisonment as habeas corpus determines whether a prisoner has been afforded due process. As such, Somerset’s case at King's Bench was argued against Captain Knowles, the person accused of unlawfully detaining Somerset. Granville Sharp – an inveterate opponent to the institution of slavery as antithetical to the British constitution and English common law – was enlisted to support James Somerset’s case. 

On 22 June 1772, Mansfield decided: “Accordingly, the return states, that the slave departed and refused to serve; whereupon he was kept, to be sold abroad. So high an act of dominion must be recognized by the law of the country where it is used… The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons… but only by positive law… It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from this decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.”

Mansfield took great care to phrase his ruling to avoid offering a ruling on the legal status of slaves and their rights in England. However, many, including James Somerset, understood the decision to have effectively abolished slavery in England.

It would be another 35 years after the Somerset case before the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and a further 26 years after that before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally put an end to the practice across the British Empire.

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