Introduction | Somerset Case | The Zong Case  | Abolishing the Slave Trade | Ending Slavery | "Time of the Ancient Mariner | Blake's Plates for Stedman | "To Toussaint L'Ouverture"

Somerset Case

MansfieldAn image of Lord Mansfield, who presided over several important cases relating to slavery.
Between 1771 and 1772, British courts dealt with the Somerset Case, whereby James Somerset (a slave) was forcibly taken from England to the colonies. Lord Mansfield presided over the case, and Granville Sharp (a noted abolitionist) attended the case with aims to abolish slavery. Eventually, Mansfield would rule that “No master ever was allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever – therefore the man must be discharged” (Walvin 13). Although the court case does contain a landmark decision, the case is perhaps most noteworthy for how people responded to the decision.

Many people (particularly black people) interpreted the decision as meaning that Mansfield had freed all slaves, and even publicly celebrated Mansfield the individual. Indeed, Walvin comments on how a group of black people who had heard the trial’s decision toasted Mansfield, and congratulated one another on being granted basic rights. However, Mansfield had not freed the slaves, and regretted people thinking he had done so. For the first time though, black people in England had thought their race legally free within England, and despite Mansfield’s insistence to the contrary, the notion was not quick to leave the public imagination.

John Stromski

Select Bibliography

Lee, Debbie. “British Slavery and African Exploration: The Written Legacy.” Slavery and the Romantic Imagination.
     Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002. Print.

Walvin, James. “Murdering Men.” Black Ivory: Slavery in the British Empire. 2nd ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers,
     2001. Print.