Faculty Research & Creative Activity

Title

Unkle Somerset’s’ freedom: liberty in England for black sailors

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

January 2011

Abstract

With his 1772 decree in Somerset v. Steuart that slavery was ‘so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it [in England] but positive law’, Lord Mansfield altered the legal landscape regarding black rights in England. While earlier judicial decisions had implied that slaves who came to England were free, prior to the Somerset decision there was no judicial consensus on the issue. The Somerset decision did not decree that slavery was illegal in England. Yet many blacks believed it ‘emancipated’ any slave who reached the shores of England. This understanding, combined with the British military welcoming runaways into its ranks during the American Revolution, led to several thousand former slaves reaching England, a considerable number of whom were mariners. Although the Royal Navy was not isolated from the racism or harsh legal treatment of blacks, naval personnel often assisted ex-slaves to obtain freedom in England. The freedom black mariners found in England was fairly limited; they remained subject to re-enslavement, had limited legal protections over employment conditions and were often homeless and poor. Despite such conditions, life in England was a considerable improvement over enslavement in the Americas for many former slave mariners. Slave mariners on the sloop Lawrence illustrate the means black mariners took to obtain freedom, the Royal Navy’s role in ex-slave mariners becoming free and the limits of freedom in England.

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