The starchy, conservative lawyer who freed every slave in England

Granville Sharp was not the sort of young radical that films like Belle celebrate. That’s exactly why we should remember him

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

Americans make movies about slavery and its abolition. In the past two years we’ve seen the Oscar-winning Twelve Years a Slave, based on a 19th-century slave narrative, and Django Unchained, with Christoph Waltz as a bounty-hunter who, uniquely among bounty-hunters of the period, did not make his living from capturing fugitive slaves. Spielberg’s Lincoln was about the Great Emancipator himself, as was the less historically rigorous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

But the abolition of slavery in England has never received the same attention. Perhaps it is because abolition here came not through blood and glory, but through the common law; or perhaps because emancipation does not frame constitutional debates here in the same way it does in the States. (Both sides in the abortion wars think that they are the North in that analogy, whether it’s Justice Scalia comparing Roe v. Wade to Dred Scott, the case that found laws prohibiting slavery unconstitutional, or Steven Spielberg getting the judge who wrote Roe v. Wade to play the judge who freed some slaves in Amistad.)

But this week the film Belle opens, which focuses on the curious fact that the judge who effectively abolished slavery in England, Lord Mansfield, shared his house with Dido Elizabeth Belle, the mixed-race daughter of his nephew and a Spanish slave. The film probably overplays Dido’s part in his decisions: contemporary gossip among slaveholders was that Mansfield was biased against them because of her, but we have no evidence that the abolitionists even knew of her existence. It also conflates two cases which came before Mansfield as Lord Chief Justice, taking the facts from the Zong — a slave-ship which threw 133 slaves overboard to conserve supplies, then made a claim for their loss on their insurance — and the decision, almost word-for-word, from the case of the slave James Somersett. This conflation is perfectly understandable, as Mansfield did not actually come to a decision in the Zong case; in fact, he tried very hard never to come to a decision on slavery. He did liberate slaves on a case-by-case basis, when the purported owner could not provide a bill of sale; it was only in Somersett’s case, in 1772, that he had to choose between a slave and an owner who had actually kept the receipts.

His opponent was not the radical young lawyer of the film, the 18th-century equivalent of a junior at Matrix Chambers, but Granville Sharp — grandson of a High-Church archbishop, nephew of a Tory MP, and a man who vigorously denied ‘the odious charge of innovation’. Sharp believed that it was slavery that was the innovation, entirely contrary to centuries of English common law, and that a writ of habeas corpus, the ancient writ by which the King can inquire why the liberty of one of his subjects is being curtailed, could be used to free any slave held in England. Lord Mansfield — more reluctantly than the film suggests — agreed. With that, he set a precedent: the air of England was, from then on, too pure for any slave to breathe.

This story is not as well known as it ought to be. (I once heard David Cameron make a speech about the British abolitionist movement and fail to mention Granville Sharp at all.) One reason may be the uncertainty as to what the judgment really meant — even Lord Mansfield was unsure, arguing at one point that it automatically liberated the 15,000 slaves in England, at another that it only prevented them from being sent to the West Indies. But the exact meaning did not matter: the case established that a bill of sale was no defence to habeas corpus, and so there was a procedure by which all slaves could be liberated. Abstract statements of rights are not as important as having legal remedies, founded on centuries of precedent, in guaranteeing a subject’s liberty. (There is no reason why abolition should not frame constitutional debates here.)

The narrow interpretation of Somersett’s case was particularly popular among historians who wished to downplay British abolitionism, often for political reasons — Dr Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, argued that slavery ended for economic rather than humanitarian reasons. The same revisionism happened in America, with arguments that the Civil War had been fought solely for economic reasons. But where US opinion, both popular and academic, has now swung back to view the Civil War as being ‘about’ slavery, Britain still seems stuck in the mindset of colonial guilt.

Take the Emancipation Proclamation. When the original document, signed by Lincoln, went on tour in 1947, more than three million Americans went to see it; millions more stood by the railroad to watch the ‘Freedom Train’ pass. It travelled 35,779 miles, visiting every state in the Union and stopping in most major cities. (It avoided Birmingham, Alabama — the organisers considered, rightly, that it would have been tactless to have to enforce segregation.) It is now kept in the National Archives, and when it is shown (on only three or four days a year, due to its fragility), American patriots queue for hours to see the glass case in which it is kept.

And what of the original writ of habeas corpus in Somersett’s case? It is not kept under glass; people do not queue to see it; it has never travelled the country on Network Rail. If you go to the Archives in Kew, presenting your driving licence and a utility bill, you will be allowed in to an upstairs room; if you then ask for box KB16/17, you will be handed a large cardboard box, containing a whole bunch of 18th-century parchments placed hugger-mugger inside; if you rummage through these parchments you will find, and you can hold in your hands, the document that freed every slave in England.

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  • PearlDuncan1

    “The abolition of slavery in England” is framed in the colonies, and there are lots of stories about this subject that will make great films. Please contact my agent; I have a story about my rebel ancestors from medieval Ghana who were trapped by some of the earliest nobles who entered Africa; about my Jamaica ancestors who were Maroon rebels, my Scottish, English and Welsh ancestors who were traders and plantations owners, but whose own relatives were strict abolitionists who assisted the Maroons and resisted, then abolished slavery. Some of them were nobles and they left wills, bequeathing the maximum that the slavery laws allowed to their mixed-race children and their children’s mothers. There are powerful stories about the struggle and about abolition, but the stories are set in the colonies.

    • global city

      William Roscoe has been completely cut out of the narrative, as it does not fit the demonisation process that Liverpool (deemed by the ‘liberals’ as uniquely racist for some reason) sent their MP to parliament on an anti slavery ticket!

  • Bonkim

    The planters and merchants found a back-door way to employ slaves following abolition renamed indentured servants shipped one way to various parts of the Empire – look at the ethnic mix at locations such as Trinidad Tobago, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaya, etc.

  • In the United States the newly formed Republican Party was co-founded in 1854 by Marxists/socialists who fled Europe after the failed revolutions that swept the continent in 1848. It was they, not the Lincoln faction, who precipitated the Civil War in order to Federalize the nation…

    While we don’t know when exactly the Democratic Party was co-opted by Marxists, thanks to the peculiar historical nature surrounding the founding of the Republican Party, we do know when exactly the party of Lincoln was co-opted…

    Marxists/Socialists who after the failed 1848 revolution in Germany came to the United States. Upon arrival to the United States they infiltrated the embryonic Republican Party, many forming voluntary Germanic Union Armies and becoming General Officers themselves within the Union Army, such as…

    (1) Brigadier General Joseph WEYDEMEYER of the Union Army was a close friend of Karl MARX and Fredrick Engels in the London Communist League (Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. DANA —close friend of Marx, published with Joseph Weydemyer a number of Communist Journals and, also “The Communist Manifesto,” commissioned by Karl Marx. As a member of the Communist/Socialist Fourier Society in America, Dana was well acquainted with Marx and Marx’s colleague in Communism, Fredrick Engels. Dana, also, was a friend of all Marxists in the Republican Party, offering assistance to them almost upon their arrival on the American continent.);

    (2) Brigadier General Louis BLENKER, Union Army—radical socialist/Communist from Germany—was remarkably successful in encouraging German immigrants to join the Union Army and the Republican Party;

    (3) Major General August WILLICH—often called “The Reddest of the Red ‘48ers” was a member of the London Communist League with Karl MARX and Fredrick ENGLES. Before seeking refuge in the U.S. Willich was a personal acquaintance of Karl MARX;

    (4) Major Robert ROSA, of the Union Army, was a proud member of the New York Communist Club;

    (5) Brigadier General Carl SCHURZ –as a young socialist, was noted for helping Gottfried Kinkel of Bonn escape from Spandau while imprisoned there for his socialist activities in the ’48 Revolts. Schurz came to America in 1848. He was a forty-eighter who became very active in the development of the Republican Party and in politics. He was given a high position by Lincoln in the Union Army;

    (6) Brigadier General Alexander Von Schimmelfenning, like most of the other MARXISTS /Socialist/Communists who came to the U.S. after their failed uprising in 1848;

    (7) Major General Franz SIEGEL, thought to be one of Lincoln’s most controversial and the poorest of his generals;

    (8) Commander Friedrich Karl Franz HECKER, (exact military title not known) known as “Red” and “Flagrant Friedrich.” Educated in Germany, received his doctor of law degree in Munich. He was expelled from Prussia. Arriving in the U.S., he took part in the creation of the Republican Party, encouraged the proliferation of German newspapers carrying the Socialist propaganda, aided in the election of Lincoln, and propagandized heavily among German immigrants for volunteers for the Union Army. He was named Commander of a regiment he raised of Germans;

    (9) General John C. FREMONT was noted for his close association with all of the socialist/communists whom Lincoln placed in positions of command in his army. Fremont was the first Republican candidate for president. He was considered to be the “darling” of the most radical socialists. His chief of staff, early in the war, was Hungarian socialist revolutionary;

    (10) Brevet Major General Frederick Charles SALOMON, one of a group of four radical socialist brothers, with highly similar names– three of whom were in the group of Socialist 1848ers. Frederick began his career in the Union Army as a Captain in MO, wound up as a Colonel in the Ninth Wisconsin Volunteer Regiment, then a brigadier general and a brevet major general;

    11. Brevetted Brigadier General Charles E. Salomon, also started his American military career with a bunch of MO volunteers. Born in Prussia, he, also, was one of the radical socialists arriving in the U.S. after the 1848 Socialist uprising failure and was a brother to Frederick Charles;

    12. Governor Edward Salomon, a third Salomon brother, also born in Prussia, did not do military service, but ran for political office in Wisconsin, was elected lieutenant governor, becoming Governor of Wisconsin when the elected Governor “drowned”; and

    13. Colonel Fritz ANNEKE/ANNECKE was a Forty-eighter, with a strong leftward tilt. He was a Communist League member and a Baden Revolt veteran…the list goes on…

    The failed 1848 revolutions thought Marxists a powerful lesson, that lesson being they couldn’t win overtly, so they adopted the tactic of infiltration of the West’s political parties.

    Now you know how Bolshevik Russia survived in 1917; how the West “lost” China to the Communists in 1949; why the Eisenhower administration turned a deaf ear to the anti-Communist Hungarian uprising in 1956; why the Eisenhower administration in 1959 was indifferent to the Castro brothers’ Communist fidelity, actually used the CIA to overthrow the Batista government; why the Nixon administration abandoned Taiwan for Communist China, and signed treaties/provided economic aid to the USSR; why the Nixon administration refused to tell the American People that over 50% of North Vietnamese NVA regiments were actually Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers (attired in NVA uniforms), thereby (1) ensuring the Vietnam War would be lost; (2) destroying the prominence of the United States abroad and at home; and (3) securing Communist victories in Southeast Asia. Working in the background within the political parties of the United States and Great Britain were Marxist agents doing their best to (1) ensure the survival of Communist nations when they popped up; and (2) sabotage any policies that would bring down a Communist nation.

  • mandelson

    Inconvenient truths are best left out.

  • JonBW

    What an excellent article; thank you.