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Chapter 1: James Somerset – Black History Month 2022

The Slave Trade - Artist John Raphael Smith 1791 - Credit Yale Center for British Art
The Slave Trade by John Raphael Smith (1791). Credit: Yale Center for British Art

This year we are celebrating James Somerset, a slave who gained his freedom as the result of a landmark case 250 years ago.

Lincoln’s Inn has many connections with this case – members of the Inn played key roles and the Library contains important manuscripts relating to the case.

James Somerset was born in Africa, captured as a slave in 1749 and shipped to Virginia.  There he was sold to a man called Charles Stewart who brought him to England with him in 1769.  Stewart intended to return to America, taking Somerset with him.  On 1st October 1771, however, Somerset escaped but was recaptured and imprisoned on a ship, the Ann and Mary, docked in the river Thames.

Granville Sharp, the great campaigner for the abolition of slavery, heard of Somerset’s predicament and began a campaign to free him.

Whilst in England, James Somerset had been baptised and, prompted by Sharp, his three godparents applied for a writ of habeas corpus.  This writ compelled anyone suspected of detaining someone unlawfully to bring that person before a court to determine the legality of the detention.

The writ was served on John Knowles, the captain of the ship Ann and Mary.  Among the case papers in the Library is a copy of Knowles’ return to the writ – essentially his account of events.  This formed part of bundle of evidence submitted to the judges hearing the case.

An excerpt from John Knowles' return to the writ, one of many manuscripts relating to this case contained in the Lincoln's Inn Library

Knowles appeared before the Court of King’s Bench on 9th December 1771 with James Somerset.  Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, allowed Somerset his liberty until judgment was passed in the case, in return for the payment of a guarantee that he would not abscond.  There would be a delay of a further two months before the case came to court…


Next up – Chapter 2: The Case