Durham's Black History: Granville Sharp
County Durham was actively involved in the practice of enslaving African peoples for labour in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Many Durham coal owners had investments in Caribbean sugar plantations, which relied on enslaved labour. There was even a sugar refinery at Gateshead in the mid-17th Century, using coal to refine sugar brought from the Caribbean. Much of the coal shipped to London was used by the sugar refineries on the Thames. Durham Museum is actively researching the history of African lives in Durham City. The most well-known individual associated with Durham and the abolition of the slave trade is Granville Sharp, from a Durham Cathedral family.
Granville Sharp became one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade.
Sharp was born in Durham in 1735, the ninth son of the Reverend Thomas Sharp and his wife Judith Sharp (Wheler). Thomas Sharp was the archdeacon of Northumberland, he died in 1758 and is buried in the Galilee Chapel in the Cathedral.
Sharp was educated at Durham School. Five of Sharp’s brothers survived their infancy and by the time Sharp had reached his mid-teens the family funds set aside for their education had been all but depleted. At the age of fifteen Sharp was sent to London to apprentice as a linen draper. This work did not suit him, and he preferred intellectual work and debate. In 1757 he began working as a Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London. This position allowed him plenty of free time to pursue his scholarly and intellectual pursuits. One of Granville’s brothers, William, worked in London as a surgeon. William regularly helped treat the poor, it was here that the Sharp brothers met Jonathan Strong.
Granville Sharp's first involvement: Jonathan Strong
In 1765, Jonathan Strong, an African man living in London, was beaten badly by a man claiming to be his owner and treating him as a slave. English law supposedly did not allow slavery, but there was some ambiguity about the status of African servants in practice.
Strong had been cast out onto the street for no longer being of value. Sharp and his brother tended to his injuries, and had him admitted to hospital where he stayed for four months. The Sharps paid for Strong’s treatment and, when he was fit enough, found him employment with a friend of theirs.
A year later, Strong was spotted by his former owner David Lisle, who then tried to sell Strong to James Kerr for £30. Two slave catchers captured Strong with the intention of shipping him to the Caribbean to work on Kerr's plantation. Strong however got word to Sharp, who went directly to the Lord Mayor who in turn convened those laying claims to Strong.
Kerr’s lawyer produced a bill of sale for Strong. This was not enough to convince the Lord Mayor, since Strong was imprisoned without clear cause, and so he liberated Strong. Kerr attempted eight more times to get the judgment overturned, and even challenged Sharp to a duel. Kerr’s case was dismissed and he was fined for wasting the court's time.
Sharp however realised that as the law stood it favoured the master's rights to his slaves as property. He therefore decided to spend the next two years of his life studying English Law, and how it related to the liberty of an individual.
Jonathan Strong was free even if the law had not been changed. Strong only lived for five years as a free man, dying aged twenty five.
Somerset v Stewart – The First step to Abolition?
James Somerset, an enslaved African, was purchased by Charles Stewart, a customs officer in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, a British crown colony in North America.
Stewart brought Somerset with him when he came to England in 1769, but in October 1771 Somerset escaped. After he was recaptured in November, Stewart had him imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica. He directed that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour.
Somerset's godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, made an application on 3 December before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. Captain Knowles on 9 December produced Somerset before the Court of King's Bench, which had to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful. Somerset’s defence argued that while colonial laws might permit slavery, neither the common law of England nor any statutory law of Parliament recognised the existence of slavery and slavery was therefore unlawful.
The Final judgment was delivered by Lord Mansfield on 22 June 1772. He stated:
The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.
Outcomes of Somerset vs Stewart
Somerset was freed and his supporters, who included both black and white Londoners, celebrated a great victory. Lord Mansfield appeared to believe that a great moral question had been posed and he deliberately avoided answering that question in full, because of its profound political and economic consequences.
While Somerset's case provided a boon to the abolitionist movement, it did not stop the holding of slaves within England. Nor did it end British participation in the slave trade or slavery in other parts of the British Empire.
Despite the ruling, escaped slaves continued to be recaptured in England. In addition, contemporary newspaper advertisements show that slaves continued to be bought and sold in the British Isles. Seven years later in 1779, a Liverpool newspaper advertised the sale of a black boy, and a clipping of the ad was acquired by Sharp himself.
Granville Sharp continued the fight against slavery for the next 35 years.
In 1769 Sharp published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery.
Sharp involves himself in several high profiled cases, including the Zong Massacre.
It was not until 1807 that the first act limiting slavery was created. The Slave Trade Act 1807, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom prohibiting the slave trade in the British Empire. Although it did not abolish the practice of slavery, it did encourage British action to press other nation states to abolish their own slave trades.
When Sharp heard that the Act had at last been passed by both Houses of Parliament and given Royal Assent on 25 March 1807, he fell to his knees. Now 71, he had outlived almost all the allies and opponents of his early campaigns. He was regarded as the grand old man of the abolition struggle.
Sharp, however, did not see the final abolition act as he died on 6 July 1813 and was buried at All Saints' Church, Fulham, beside his brother William Sharp and sister Elizabeth Prouse.
Slavery was finally outlawed in 1833 with The Slavery Abolition Act 1833, making the purchase or ownership of slaves illegal within the British Empire.
Courtesy of the Martha's Vineyard Museum.