PortCities London

London and the transatlantic slave trade

The rights of Africans in Britain

Granville Sharpe and Jonathan Strong

The notorious Black Billy ‘at home’ to a London street party
View full size imageThe notorious Black Billy 'at home' to a London street party. © NMM
Granville Sharp was one of the earliest campaigners for the rights of blacks in Britain. Many enslaved people from plantations in the Americas were forced to come to Britain with their masters. Often they were badly treated. 

Once in Britain, slaves had very few rights and their masters could force them back to the plantations. Many enslaved Africans escaped in large towns and cities, especially in London.

In 1765, Sharp and his brother William, a surgeon, took pity on and befriended an injured slave, Jonathan Strong, whom they met on a London street. 

Granville Sharp
View full size image Granville Sharp. © NMM
Strong's master, David Lisle of Barbados, had assaulted him. The Sharp brothers nursed him backed to health and helped him find a position with an apothecary.

Quite by chance Lisle saw Strong and, without capturing him, sold him for £30 to a Jamaican planter. Two slave hunters operating in London kidnapped and imprisoned Strong while waiting for a ship to take him to the Caribbean. Sharp used his knowledge of the law to win Strong’s release.

The legal cases brought against Sharp collapsed. He argued successfully that a master had rights over a slave only if the slave had agreed in writing to the arrangement. 

In 1769, Sharp published his findings in an important pamphlet: A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery in England.

Sharp, Lord Mansfield and the Somerset Case

Following his successful defence of Jonathan Strong, Sharp soon received news of other cases. In 1769, Charles Stewart of Boston took one of his slaves, James Somerset, from Jamaica to Britain. 

Somerset ran away from his master in 1771. He was recaptured and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. Sharp intervened and put the case before Lord Mansfield, the Lord Chief Justice of England.

After many months of legal argument, Mansfield finally decided that a master had no right to force an enslaved person to return to a foreign country. Somerset was consequently set free. 

Although Mansfield’s judgment did not actually state that slavery was illegal in England, it was an important milestone in securing improved rights for Africans in Britain.

   Back to A symbol of London