Updated: Nov 18
To celebrate 250 years of the landmark Somerset v Stewart ruling, which contributed to the abolition of slavery in England, our director Kunle chaired an event on 22 June at Kenwood House in north London – home of William Murray, Baron (later Earl of) Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench who made the ruling – to commemorate the anniversary.
The event saw a discussion among specially selected speakers, who reflected on the enduring relevance of the slavery legal case.
The speakers included: the UK’s leading anti-slavery lawyer Parosha Chandran, Ghanaian analyst, journalist and pan-African activist credited with developing the recognition of October as Black History Month in the UK Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, and founder and director of the Chineke! Orchestra Chi-chi Nwanoku.
Kunle Olulode, Director at Voice4Change England, said: “I first learnt of the case of James Somerset many years ago when reading Peter Fryers classic work ‘Staying Power – The History of Black People in Britain’. The full significance of the legal case in my view has until recently been underestimated by scholars and political commentators alike in the campaign to abolish slavery.
I am honoured to be chairing this important landmark event at Kenwood House, former home of Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield and his niece Dido Belle, exactly 250 years after the decision was made.
This was an historic decision that lit up the abolitionist cause and put one of the key foundations in place on the way to abolishing slavery in England and parts of the USA.”
Born around 1741 in West Africa, James Somerset was captured and sold to European slavers when he was approximately eight years old and in 1749, he was sold in Norfolk, Virginia to the Scottish merchant Charles Steuart (Stewart). His name, ‘Somerset’, was most likely given to him by the slave traders.
In 1769, Steuart relocated to England, taking Somerset with him. Throughout his enslavement, Somerset was sent on errands by Steuart which took him not only around London but also into the English countryside where he may have met other Black people and as well as white abolitionists.
On 1 October 1771 James Somerset left Steuart and refused to return. On 26 November 1771, on Steuart’s orders, he was kidnapped by slave hunters and delivered to Captain John Knowles, captain of the ship Ann and Mary, where he was gaoled awaiting transportation to Jamaica where he was to be sold to a plantation for labour.
On 3 December, Somerset’s godparents made an application before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, requiring Captain Knowles to present Somerset to the court.
Literally translated, ‘habeas corpus’ means ‘you may have the body’ and was the expression used in the middle ages to bring a prisoner into court. Its purpose since the 17th century was to protect against false imprisonment as habeas corpus determines whether a prisoner has been afforded due process.
As such, Somerset’s case at King's Bench was argued against Captain Knowles, the person accused of unlawfully detaining Somerset. Granville Sharp – an inveterate opponent to the institution of slavery as antithetical to the British constitution and English common law – was enlisted to support James Somerset’s case.
Although many understood the Somerset v Stewart ruling to mean the end of slavery in England, it would be another 35 years after the Somerset case before the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and a further 26 years after that before the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 finally put an end to the practice across the British Empire.
As the host of this event, English Heritage also commissioned new music to commemorate this anniversary. The music was inspired by the life of Somerset and comes from the Chineke! Junior Orchestra – Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse orchestra.
Several members of the Chineke! Junior Orchestra have achieved considerable success after securing full scholarships to the Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music, Royal Northern College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music.