According to Lord Mansfield, the presiding judge in the Somerset
case, the question that the Court had to answer was ‘…Whether
any dominion, authority or coercion can be exercised in this country,
on a slave according to the American laws?’ In his decision
on 22 June 1772, in effect preventing the forced return of James
Somerset to the West Indies to be resold, Lord Mansfield stated:
‘The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it
is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political,
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 the decision, I cannot say this case
is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the
black must be discharged.’
The implications of the judgement in the Somerset case were far-reaching,
but were not what many slaves believed them to be. It did not emancipate
them, or free them to work for any employer once in Britain. What
it did do was remove the element of compulsion by providing slaves
with the legal right not to be forcibly removed from the country.
These extracts are taken from the trial report of the Somerset case.
The first extract briefly gives the background. The second reports
Lord Mansfield’s decision, as well as some of the matters
considered by him before reaching judgement.
Howell's State Trials, vol. 20, cols 1-6, 79-82