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Summerset fugitive

Updated on March 3, 2012

The Somerset Fugitive

The case reference is that of Somerset: The kidnapping of a nine-year-old boy who was growing up in a West African village. He was rallied with the slaves along the middle passage to America and given the name James Somerset; Of course, this individual was quick to understand English attitudes and language. A Scottish, Virginian trades merchant, Charles Stewart, became intrigued and “purchased” Somerset on August 1, 1749; trained him in personal servitude.

Eventually through adventures, Somerset was allowed to be the black community from the British West Indian colonies. Somerset permanently left Stewart’s home on October 1, 1771. Mr. Stewart was not satisfied with this emotion. Feeling betrayed, he posted notices 'slave catchers for hire'. A Captain Knowles 'captured' Somerset on November 26, 1771; detained him, one month, in chains until Somerset's 'God Parents' petitioned the Court of King's Bench, a wit of habeas corpus, with affidavits stating he was being held unwillingly aboard Capt. Knowles’ ship to Jamaica. A Lord Mansfield, the court Chief Justice, issued a wit mandating Capt. Knowles to explain his detainment of Somerset. On December 9, 1771, Capt. Knowles appeared in King’s Bench with Somerset and the written explanation; the explanation included, capture for resale in Jamaica.

The courts continued; temporary releasing and capturing Somerset on more than one occasion. Benjamin Franklin interceded in London and was not at all infatuated with case. Somerset’s case was evaluated and determination as follows: If the master could use force restrain the runaway slave, the slave could liberate himself. Over time many 'black slaves' of Britain liberated themselves by walking away from their masters, that deciding not to pursue them; basically a form of permissive (neglectful) guardianship.


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