In 1772, a crowd gathered outside court to hear the decision on a case that had captured the public imagination. It was the case of James Somerset, an enslaved man who had escaped from his ‘master’, Charles Stewart, in England in 1771. Stewart had Somerset arrested and placed aboard a ship bound for Jamaica, then a British slave colony. Somerset was able to contact Granville Sharp, a humanitarian lawyer and abolitionist, who brought the case to court. The presiding judge, Lord Mansfield, reluctantly agreed that Somerset must be discharged.

Sharp dedicated much of his life to the movement to abolish slavery and supported the resettling of former slaves in Sierra Leone. But he also believed in fundamental differences between white Britons and Africans. As Catherine Hall, the historian, has noted in the London Review of Books, Sharp felt it important to stop slave-owners bringing their enslaved attendants to Britain.

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