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James Somerset: 1771-1772

James Somerset is a slave brought from Jamaica to England in 1769 by his American master, Charles Stewart of Boston. Somerset escapes in 1771. But he is recaptured and is put on board a ship bound for Jamaica, where he is to be sold.

Slaves brought to England by foreign masters have been a familiar feature of 18th-century England, and their status as their masters' property has been generally accepted. But Granville Sharp, an English campaigner against slavery, decides to make a test case of Somerset's plight. He uses a writ of habeas corpus to have him removed from the ship before it sails, on the grounds that Somerset's presence in England has given him the status of a free man.

A lengthy case is held before the lord chief justice, Lord Mansfield. It drags on into 1772. No clear legal precedent can be found to decide the issue either way, but eventually Mansfield frees Somerset on the grounds that slavery is so 'odious' that the benefit of doubt must prevail on Somerset's behalf.

So the slave is freed and Charles Stewart is deprived of his property. The judgement means that no more slaves are brought to England. And henceforth, if any are forcibly taken out of the country, the deed is done secretly and illegally.

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