Somerset v Stewart, Court of King’s Bench (22 June 1772)

From the Historic England entry for St. Andrew’s Church, Holborn:

“…Notable figures associated with the church include John Gerard, the herbalist, who was buried here in 1618, and Benjamin Disraeli, the future prime minster, who was baptised here as a twelve-year-old in 1817. The church is now the headquarters church of the Royal College of Organists.

Amongst a number of points of historic interest, the Church of St Andrew is associated with a very significant moment in the history of Black presence in Britain, through the baptism in 1771 of James Somerset.

Somerset had been enslaved in Africa and sold in Virginia to Charles Stewart, a colonial customs official, who regarded him as his property for 20 years. Somerset was brought to London by Stewart in 1769, and on 12 February 1771 was baptised at the Church of St Andrew, Holborn. Having left Stewart’s service in October 1771, Somerset was seized by Stewart and confined in irons aboard a ship bound for Jamaica on 26 November. 

Somerset’s white godparents, who had welcomed him into the Church at St Andrew’s, secured a writ of habeas corpus from Lord Mansfield, demanding that he be presented to the court. Somerset then persuaded Granville Sharp, by then well known for his passionate dedication to the campaign against slavery, to support his cause.

The Somerset case opened in January 1772, with eight separate hearings leading up to the final decision in June of that year. The argument centred on the question of whether slavery was legal in England, and whether an English court should uphold colonial laws which did not have an English parallel.  The final ruling on 22 June 1772 asserted that slavery lacked a firm foundation in English law, and therefore was understood by many at the time to grant freedom not only to James Somerset, but to all enslaved Black people in Britain. It was a significant milestone on the long road to Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and of slavery itself in 1833…”

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