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Scotland and the Slave Trade: 2007 Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act


Legal Cases before the abolition of the Slave Trade

The practice of owning people did not become common in Britain and as a result a number of contradictory legal decisions had been made that raised the question of the rights of the enslaved, as well as the legal right to own people in Britain. The outcomes of these cases also influenced the abolition movement.

Credit: Abolition of Colonial Slavery Meeting, 1830 (letterpress) by English School, (19th century) © Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Credit: Abolition of Colonial Slavery Meeting, 1830 (letterpress) by English School, (19th century) © Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: English / out of copyright

Chapter 4: Legal Cases Before the Abolition of the Slave Trade

James Montgomery

James Montgomery, an enslaved African, was brought from Virginia to Ayrshire by Robert Sheddan. Sheddan wanted Montgomery, then called 'Shanker', apprenticed to a joiner so that he would learn a skill and could then be sold for a large profit back in Virginia. When 'Shanker' decided to be baptised in Beith Parish Church with the name James Montgomery in April 1756, Sheddan objected. Montgomery was dragged to Port Glasgow behind horses to be taken back to Virginia but he escaped to Edinburgh before the ship sailed. Montgomery sought justice but before a decision could be made by judges he died in Tolbooth Gaol.

David Spens

David Spens was known as 'Black Tom' until he was baptised in Wemyss Parish Church in September 1769. Spens was an enslaved African brought from the Home estates in Grenada to Methil in Fife by Dr David Dalrymple. After he was baptised Spens returned to his master stating "I am now by the Christian Religion liberate and set at freedom from my yoke, bondage, and slavery". He was shielded in his declaration by a local farmer, John Henderson. Spens threatened legal action against Dalrymple if he tried to "deprive the sovereign Lord the King of a good subject". Spens was immediately arrested, but with the assistance of several local lawyers he was able to issue writs for wrongful arrest. The local churches and the miners and salters of West Fife collected funds for his assistance. Spens was released from jail but Dalrymple died before the Court of Session decided the case.

James Somerset

When Charles Stewart travelled from Boston, America, to Britain he brought the enslaved James Somerset with him. In 1771 Somerset ran away from Stewart but was recaptured and imprisoned on a ship that was to sail to Jamaica, where he was to be sold. Three people witnessed the recapture and reported it to the Lord Chief Justice and he ordered that Somerset was to be kept in the country until a case could be heard. The case was heard in 1772. Granville Sharp, the abolitionist campaigner, assisted Somerset with legal support. Sharp argued that no man at that time was or could be a slave in England and that the laws of the American colonies had no force in Britain. Against Somerset's lawyers was the opinion of sections of the trading community that feared that if all slaves in British ports were set free thousands of pounds would be lost. The Lord Chief Justice made a carefully worded statement: In England no master was allowed to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he had deserted his service or for any other reason whatever.

The ruling was interpreted by many as meaning that slaves in Britain were free. That was not the case, but after it was made many slaves deserted their owners anyway and the case provided a pivotal decision that affected attitudes and lives.

Joseph Knight

Mansfield's judgment was seen by Joseph Knight, an enslaved African from the Americas living in Perthshire with his 'owner' Sir John Wedderburn 5. Knight demanded wages for his work and to be able to leave Wedderburn after seeing the judgment. He ran away when this was refused and Wedderburn had him arrested. The case was taken to court and a number of key opponents of slavery came to Knight's defence. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson supported Knight and helped in his representation when the court case was heard at Perth and then on appeal at the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 1778. Both courts came to the same conclusion that the law of Scotland did not allow slavery. Lord Auchenleck (father of James Boswell) stated "although in the plantations they have laid hold poor blacks and made slaves of them, yet I do not think that is agreeable to humanity, not to say to the Christian religion". This Scottish judgment on slavery went further than the English Somerset case.

Case of the Zong

The slave ship the Zong left the coast of Africa in September 1781. Far more enslaved Africans had been packed onto the ship than the hold was adapted for and disease spread quickly, exacerbated by malnutrition. By November 1781, 60 Africans had died. The Captain, Luke Collingwood, decided to throw the remaining 131 Africans overboard to stop the disease.

Under British law if the cargo, in this case people, was lost it would be underwritten by the insurers. If, however, the sick Africans failed to be sold in the Caribbean then the fault and loss would be the crew's. The claim by the Captain to the insurers was that there was not enough water for those on board. That claim was found to be false as 430 gallons of water were on board when the Zong reached port. In 1783 the case went to court, not over the death of the Africans but as an insurance dispute. The British courts ruled that the ship owners could not claim insurance on the loss of the Africans, however no officers or crew were charged with or prosecuted for murder.

The case received a lot of attention in the press and was used by abolitionists to highlight the horrendous way in which the enslaved were transported across the Atlantic and the status given to their lives.