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BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Granville Sharp’s Cases on Slavery

Granville Sharp’s Cases on SlaveryGranville Sharp image

Andrew Lyall

The purpose of Granville Sharp’s Cases on Slavery is twofold: first, to publish previously unpublished legal materials principally in three important cases in the 18th century on the issue of slavery in England, and specifically the status of black people who were slaves in the American colonies or the West Indies and who were taken to England by their masters. The unpublished materials are mostly verbatim transcripts made by shorthand writers commissioned by Granville Sharp, one of the first Englishmen to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself. Other related unpublished material is also made available for the first time, including an opinion of an attorney general and some minor cases from the library of York Minster.

The second purpose, outlined in the Introduction, is to give a social and legal background to the cases and an analysis of the position in England of black servants/slaves brought to England and the legal effects of the cases, taking into account the new information provided by the transcripts. There was a conflict in legal authorities as to whether black servants remained slaves, or became free on arrival in England.

Lord Mansfield, the chief justice of the court of King’s Bench, was a central figure in all the cases and clearly struggled to come to terms with slavery. The material provides a basis for tracing the evolution of his thought on the subject. On the one hand, the huge profits from slave production in the West Indies flooded into England, slave owners had penetrated the leading institutions in England and the pro-slavery lobby was influential. On the other hand, English law had over time established rights and liberties which in the 18th century were seen by many as national characteristics. That tradition was bolstered by the ideas of the Enlightenment.

By about the 1760s it had become clear that there was no property in the person, and by the 1770s that such servants could not be sent abroad without their consent, but whether they owed an obligation of perpetual service remained unresolved.

Dr Andrew Lyall is a retired member of staff in Law at University College Dublin.

February 2017   |    9781509911219   |   448pp  |   Hardback  |   RSP: £60

Discount Price: £48

Click here to order online and use the discount code CV7 at the checkout to get your 20% off

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Lords, Freemen and Slaves

A typical Anglo-Saxon thegn.

In early English society, a distinction was made between the Freeman and the Slave. However, within these two categories multiple ranks existed and the differences between them were unclear. Some Freemen could be Lords, whilst other Freemen could be the followers of a Lord.

In ancient Germanic societies, a powerful chief would surround himself with followers, presumably to reinforce his status and for the purposes of protection. It is from this rough format, that the ideas of Lords existing and the importance of having a Lord to follow developed.

Within the category of Freemen, a ceorl was a freeman of an ordinary sort. An eorl was a freeman by virtue of noble birth and our modern day earls can trace the origins of their office back to this early start. A gesid was a well-born man that was specifically in service to the King in some capacity.

thegn was an important officer within the household of an important man. The different ranks had social importance but also carried legal importance. For example, a thegn’s wergild (the price of a man’s life) was six times more than a common man’s wergild. Moreover, a thegn’s oath for himself or as an oath-helper carried six times the power of a common man’s.

Other ranks of distinction include being a twelf-hynd, six-hynd or twy-hynd man which meant your wergild was set at 1200, 600 and 200 shillings respectively. A twelf-hynd man was also generally a thegn but the other two ranks were usually not.

In terms of the other category, there was a large population of Slaves in England until the 12th Century and a roaring Slave trade was carried out at English ports until an ordinance of Æthelred forbade it. Slavery was distinct from serfdom which was an attachment to the land, whereas slavery was an attachment to a person. Interestingly, a Freeman sometimes enslaved himself if he had fallen on hard times and had no other way to survive.

Several of these ranks form the basis of distinctions between people to this day and the determining of the precise legal status and implications of these ranks caused a great deal of confusion throughout the ancient and medieval times.

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