Who resisted and campaigned for abolition?

The status of slaves in Britain

by Dr Alan Rice

'While I was here, I met with a trifling incident, which surprised me agreeably. I was one day in a field belonging to a gentleman who had a black boy about my own size; this boy. . . was transported at the sight of one of his own countrymen, and ran to meet me with the utmost haste. I not knowing what he was about, turned a little out of his way at first, but to no purpose: he soon came close to me, and caught hold of me in his arms, as if I had been his brother, though we had never seen each other before.' Olaudah Equiano, 1761

African servants in Britain

From the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade a few enslaved Africans were brought back to Britain as slave-servants. They were usually kept by aristocratic and rich merchant families (often with connections in the Caribbean) as a way of showing off their wealth. By the 1770s there were a few thousand such African servants scattered all over Britain.

Their presence in Britain is most evident in portraits of these families where the black servant is portrayed well-dressed and attentive in a similar relationship to the portrait sitters as their dogs and horses. Their presence is also shown by graves of enslaved Africans in locations throughout the country. In the north west there are such graves at Sunderland Point near Lancaster, Whitehaven, Poulton, on the Isle of Man and in Bowness.

James Somerset court case

Keeping these Africans enslaved in eighteenth century Britain proved far more difficult than in the plantation societies of the Caribbean or the American South. Their status as enslaved was challenged by a series of court cases in which the famous abolitionist Granville Sharpe took a leading role. The most famous of these in England took place in 1772. It was the legal case of James Somerset, an enslaved African who escaped his master in 1770 and got himself baptised in the mistaken belief that his Christian status would help him win his freedom. His master, Charles Stewart captured him in late 1771 intending to have him taken back to Jamaica as a slave labourer. Luckily for Somerset, with the help of freed blacks and abolitionists, he saved himself from this fate. In the famous court case called ‘the Mansfield Judgement' he was released.

Mary Prince

The judgement did not put an end to slavery however, as rich merchants and aristocrats felt untroubled about bringing enslaved Africans into England to work for them as slave-servants right up until 1828. In 1828 the famous Mary Prince was brought by her owners to London from Antigua. Like Somerset she escaped and moreover, published her autobiography in 1831 just before the Emancipation Act of 1833 that was to free enslaved workers in a number of British colonies.

Mary Prince's autobiography can be compared to earlier works by ex-slaves in Britain such as Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho and Ottobah Cugoano. The writings of these people protest at the enslavement of their fellow Africans in Africa, the Americas and Britain. Cugoano and Equiano went further helping to form the radical ‘Sons of Africa' group to fight the evils of slavery.

Scotland and the Knight case

The situation in Scotland was more straightforward than in England and the landmark Knight v Wedderburn case of 1778 established that an enslaved person on entering Scotland, 'the land of liberty', became free. Joseph Knight who fought for his freedom through escaping his master before winning the judgement was one of many slave-servants in Scotland at the time. As in Britain, there are several graves that provide evidence of the presence of these former slaves in Scotland. Just one example is the grave of Scipio Kennedy in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire. He had been enslaved and then a free servant at Culzean Castle from 1702 until his death in 1774.

'O ye inhabitants of Great Britain! To whom I owe the greatest respect; to your king! To yourselves! And to your government! And tho’ many things which I have written may seem harsh, it cannot be otherwise evaded when such horrible iniquity is transacted: and tho’ to some what I have said may appear as the rattling leaves of autumn, that may soon be blown away and whirled in a vortex where few can hear and know: I must yet say, although it is not for me to determine the manner, that the voice of our complaint implies a vengeance, because of the great iniquity that you have done, and because of the cruel injustice done unto us Africans; and it ought to sound in your ears as the rolling waves around your circum-ambient shores.' Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, 1787