The Sommersett Case and the Slave Trade1
Printed in The London Chronicle, June 18–20, 1772
It is said that some generous humane persons subscribed to the expence of obtaining liberty by law for Somerset the Negro.2 It is to be wished that the same humanity may extend itself among numbers; if not to the procuring liberty for those that remain in our Colonies, at least to obtain a law for abolishing the African commerce in Slaves, and declaring the children of present Slaves free after they become of age.
By a late computation made in America, it appears that there are now eight hundred and fifty thousand Negroes in the English Islands and Colonies; and that the yearly importation is about one hundred thousand, of which number about one third perish by the gaol distemper on the passage, and in the sickness called the seasoning before they are set to labour. The remnant makes up the deficiencies continually occurring among the main body of those unhappy people, through the distempers occasioned by excessive labour, bad nourishment, uncomfortable accommodation, and broken spirits.3 Can sweetening our tea, &c. with sugar, be a circumstance of such absolute necessity? Can the petty pleasure thence arising to the taste, compensate for so much misery produced among our fellow creatures, and such a constant butchery of the human species by this pestilential detestable traffic in the bodies and souls of men? Pharisaical Britain! to pride thyself in setting free a single Slave that happens to land on thy coasts, while thy Merchants in all thy ports are encouraged by thy laws to continue a commerce whereby so many hundreds of thousands are dragged into a slavery that can scarce be said to end with their lives, since it is entailed on their posterity!
1. This brief but telling assault on slavery shows a development of BF’s views; see the headnote on Benezet to BF above, April 27, and Crane, Letters to the Press, pp. 221–2.
2. The long struggle that Granville Sharp had waged in the courts to outlaw slavery in England culminated in the case of James Sommersett, a runaway slave who had been recaptured and was about to be shipped to Jamaica to be sold. Lord Mansfield’s decision to free him was widely interpreted, at the time and later, to mean that any slave arriving in England became free; and this was the purport of the judgment: above, XVII, 38 n. Technically, however, the Lord Chief Justice decided the case on narrower ground, that a slave might not be taken out of the country against his will; if he was resident in England, or willing to leave in bondage, he was not affected. See Jerome Nadelhaft, “The Somersett Case and Slavery: Myth, Reality, and Repercussions,” The Jour. of Negro History, LI (1966), 193–201, and for a fuller treatment David B. Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770–1823 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), pp. 480–501.
3. BF was here drawing on Benezet’s letter of April 27.