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Britain's Runaway Ads, J. Somersett Won His Freedom! ~Prof Newman Lectures

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The Gist of Freedom

The Gist of Freedom


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Join The Gist of Freedom as we welcome  Our Visiting Lecturer The University of Glasgow's Professor Simon P. Newton. The topic of discussion: The Runaway Slaves Ads in Eighteenth-Century Britain project! It has created a searchable database of well over eight hundred newspaper advertisements placed by Colonial slavers seeking the capture and return of enslaved people who they traveled with to Britain and  bound people who had escaped. Many  of these bound and enslaved people were of African descent, though a small number were from the Indian sub-continent and a few were Indigenous Americans. To the enslaved flight represented one of the greatest acts of self-determination, and some historians have argued that runaways challenged the slave system from within and contributed to their own and others' eventual emancipation. 

The first British-Enslaved African Man to win his freedom through the courts was James Somersett.

In 1771, soon after he was brought to Scotland, Somersett ran away but was re-captured and put on a ship bound for Jamaica. But three people claiming to be Somersett's godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin, and Elizabeth Cade, made an application before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus.

After a month of consideration, judge Lord Justice Mansfield ruled that James should be set free. He called the case 'odious' and said that 'the claim of slavery can never be supported'. 

This was hailed as a great victory by James and his supporters and set an important precedent, widely taken to mean that when a slave sets foot on English soil, he becomes free. It wasn't until Wilberforce's 1807 act, though, that owning foreign slaves on foreign lands was outlawed.