The Legal Status of Slaves
The legal position of enslaved Africans in Britain before
the abolition of slavery was ambiguous, and further muddied
and confused by senior lawyers. Revolutionary uprisings demanding
natural justice rocked America in 1779 and France in 1789,
but the principles of political and social freedom had limited
application, particularly in the case of slaves.
Slaves as Property
Plantation owners in the Americas were dependent upon slaves
to ensure high profitability. In Britain, 18th-century laws
were designed to support a trade in slaves that was sanctioned
by the king and parliament. A decision by the Solicitor General
stated that 'Negroes' ought to be 'esteemed goods and commodities
within the Trade and Navigation Acts'. Such a ruling permitted
slave owners to use property law with regard to their slaves
'to recover goods wrongfully detained, lost or damaged' as
they would any other property.
The use of property law meant that the enslaved were considered
not humans, but commodities. This view of Africans would have
a detrimental and lasting effect on the Black community well
into the 20th century. The historian James Walvin concludes
that 'the State, as an institution, dehumanized African men,
women and children for its own ends'.
Slaves and Employment
Most plantation owners lived in Britain. They brought their
household slaves back with them from trips to the Americas,
and used them to perform domestic duties in Britain.
An owner's right to his slave's labour was challenged in
court in Middlesex in 1690. Katherine Auker accompanied her
master, Robert Rich, a Barbados planter, to England. She was
tortured and expelled from his home in England, but Rich refused
to allow her to work for anyone else. The court decided that
Auker was at 'liberty to serve any person until such time
as Rich shall return from Barbadoes'.
Law reports provide ample evidence of enslaved people in
England bringing actions to obtain discharge from enforced
employment. Well aware of the brutalities of plantation life,
they would often do anything they could to avoid returning
to the colonies with their masters. But the judgements they
received were often contradictory, and did not bring slavery
in Britain to an end.
A Black Servant Sues
her Employers, 1690
The Yorke-Talbot Ruling
One of the justifications advanced by Europeans for the enslavement
of Africans had been their heathen and pagan state. But, if
being a heathen was reason for enslavement, then might not
conversion to Christianity or baptism result in freedom? From
1664 onwards a number of American colonies legislated against
manumission (the granting of freedom) in such circumstances,
but the legal position remained unclear. Eventually, the British
courts were asked for clarification, and in 1729 a joint opinion
by the Attorney General (Sir Philip Yorke) and Solicitor General
(Charles Talbot) attempted to answer a number of questions
concerning the status of slaves. The Yorke-Talbot ruling stated:
We are of the opinion, that a slave, by coming from the
West Indies, either with or without his master, to Great
Britain or Ireland, doth not become free; and that his master’s
property or right in him is not thereby determined or varied;
and baptism doth not bestow freedom on him, nor make any
alteration to his temporal condition in these kingdoms.
We are also of opinion, that the master may legally compel
him to return to the plantations.
The Somerset Ruling
The celebrated Somerset ruling of 1772 concerned a slave's
liberty and status as property. The slave James Somerset (or
Sommersett) was the property of a Boston customs official,
Charles Stewart. Somerset was brought to England. After two
years he escaped, but he was recaptured on 26 November 1771
and was forced onto a ship bound for Jamaica. With help from
Granville Sharpe, a humanitarian anti-slavery campaigner,
a writ of habeas
corpus was granted by Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice,
ordering the captain of the ship on which Somerset was incarcerated
to produce Somerset before a court.
The case was repeatedly adjourned. Somerset's legal team
argued that although slavery was tolerated in the colonies,
the Court of King's Bench was bound to apply the law of England.
Mansfield ruled in 1772 that 'no master ever was allowed here
(England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because
he deserted from his service...therefore the man must
be discharged'. And so James Somerset won his freedom.
Somerset Case - opens new window
Lord Mansfield's judgment had a profound effect on slaves.
Many of them misunderstood the ruling to mean that slaves
were emancipated in Britain. This was not the case. The decision
was that no slave could be forcibly removed from Britain and
sold into slavery.
Despite Lord Mansfield's ruling, slave owners continued recapturing
their runaway slaves and shipping them back to the colonies.
Numerous newspaper advertisements of the time show that Black
slaves were still being bought and sold in England. A few
years later, in 1785, Mansfield himself ruled that 'black
slaves in Britain were not entitled to be paid for their labour'
(free Black people were, however, paid).
The legal status of African slaves in Britain and its colonies
remained unclear until the early 19th century. In 1807, with
the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, the slave
trade became illegal; and 21 years later almost all Black
men, women and children held in bondage in the British empire
were granted their freedom.
References and Further Reading
Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People
in Britain, London,1984
Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London,
New York and Ibadan, 1977
Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society
1555-1945, Aylesbury, 1973