[1772] - Lord Mansfield delivers judgement in the case of James Somersett, a runaway slave

Somersett’s Case refers to the judgement of the King’s Bench on 22 June 1772 that no one has the right ‘to take a slave by force to be sold abroad’. The ruling by Lord Mansfield led to the emancipation of thousands of slaves throughout Britain.

James Somersett was a slave owned by Charles Stewart, a customs officer from Boston, Massachusetts. Stewart had brought Somersett to England in 1769, but he escaped two years later. He was subsequently recaptured and imprisoned on board a ship that was due to sail for Jamaica. An application, however, was made to the courts by three people claiming to be Somersett’s godparents. Consequently, the court ordered Somersett to attend an inquiry into the legality of his imprisonment. Proceedings into the case began in February 1772. Lord Mansfield delivered his judgement in June and Somersett was freed.

The Somersett Case established a significant legal precedent. It not only prohibited the forcible removal of slaves from Britain, but also effectively brought an end to the holding of slaves throughout the country. It was not until 1807, however, that Britain abolished the trade in slaves throughout its empire. Finally, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ended the institution of slavery in the British Empire and compensated slave-owners for the losses they incurred.

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