Written by A Classical Liberal
Editor: You can read the first part of this article here on Independence Daily.
While Somerset’s case provided a boon to the abolitionist movement, it did not end the holding of slaves within England. It did not end British participation in the slave trade or slavery in other parts of the British Empire, where colonies had established slave laws. Despite the ruling, escaped slaves continued to be recaptured in England. Also, contemporary newspaper advertisements show that slaves continued to be bought and sold in the British Isles.
It was not until 1807 that Parliament decided to suppress the slave trade, not only to outlaw the practice by British subjects but also to seek to suppress the trade by foreigners through the sea power of the Royal Navy. Although the slave trade was stopped, slavery continued in various parts of the British Empire until abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. The slave merchants who funded Stewart’s defence were not anxious about James Somerset or the relatively limited number of slaves in Great Britain but how abolition might affect their overseas interests. In the end, merchants could continue trading slaves for 61 years after Lord Mansfield’s decision. Commentators have argued that the decision’s importance lay in how it was portrayed at the time and later by the newspapers, with the assistance of a well-organised abolitionist movement.
Lord Mansfield freed Somerset by his ruling. He did so in the face of the 1729 opinion of the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. The prominence of the case emphasised the issues to the public. It was widely and incorrectly interpreted as ending slavery in Britain. Even Mansfield himself considered slavery to still be legal in Britain. When Mansfield died, his 1782 will granted his mulatto grand-niece, Dido Elizabeth Belle, her freedom, indicating that slavery continued to be legal.
The Somerset case became a significant part of the common law of slavery in the English-speaking world and helped launch a new wave of abolitionism. Lord Mansfield’s ruling contributed to the concept that slavery was contrary ‘both to natural law and the principles of the English Constitution’, a position adopted by abolitionists.
Slavery in the rest of the British Empire continued until it was ended by the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. India was excluded from these provisions, as slavery was considered part of the indigenous culture and was not disrupted.
The Somerset case was reported in detail by the American colonial press. In Massachusetts, several slaves filed freedom suits in 1773–1774 based on Mansfield’s ruling. These were supported by the colony’s General Court (for freedom of the slaves) but vetoed by successive Royal governors.
Beginning during the Revolutionary War, northern states began to abolish or rule against maintaining slavery. Vermont was the first in 1777, followed by Pennsylvania (1780), Massachusetts (1783), and Connecticut (1784).
After the American Revolution, the Somerset decision ‘took on a life of its own and entered the mainstream of American constitutional discourse’ and was crucial in anti-slavery constitutionalism.
The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, a non-denominational group, founded in 1787, included Thomas Clarkson. British MP William Wilberforce led the anti-slavery movement in the United Kingdom, although Clarkson’s anti-slavery essay provided the groundwork. Wilberforce was urged by his close friend, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, to make the issue his own and was also given support by reformed Evangelical John Newton. The British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807, making the slave trade illegal throughout the British Empire. Wilberforce also campaigned for abolishing slavery in the British Empire, which he lived to see in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
In 1839, the world’s oldest international human rights organization, Anti-Slavery International, was formed in Britain by Joseph Sturge, which campaigned to outlaw slavery in other countries. These campaigners encouraged other countries to follow suit, notably France and the British colonies.
Action was taken against African leaders who refused to agree to British treaties to outlaw the trade, for example, against ‘the usurping King of Lagos’, deposed in 1851. Anti-slavery treaties were signed with over 50 African rulers.
The Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron at a substantial expense in 1808 after Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act of 1807. The squadron’s task was to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by patrolling the coast of West Africa. It began with two small ships with a home base at Portsmouth, the 32-gun fifth-rate frigate HMS Solebay and the Cruiser class brig-sloop HMS Derwent. At the height of its operations, the squadron employed a sixth of the Royal Navy fleet and marines. In 1819 the Royal Navy established a West Coast of Africa Station, and the West Africa Squadron became known as the Preventative Squadron. In 1870 the West Africa Squadron was absorbed by the Cape of Good Hope Station.
Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 Africans. It is considered the most costly international moral action in modern history.
In the 1860s, David Livingstone‘s reports of atrocities within the Arab slave trade in Africa stirred up the interest of the British public, reviving the flagging abolitionist movement. The Royal Navy throughout the 1870s attempted to suppress ‘this abominable Eastern trade’, at Zanzibar in particular.
By the start of the Second Boer War in 1899, a long period of relative peace had existed. The station became the main base for British Forces disembarking and embarking during the war and for supplies and equipment being shipped from Britain for the duration of the conflict.