The Clapham Society Local History Series — 24
by Anne Wilson
This article first appeared in the South London Press on 9 June 2017
(Entitled: ‘Fighting for the cause to end slavery’)
Granville Sharp was a significant member of the 18th century Evangelical group of Clapham abolitionists. In 1787 he was one of the twelve founding signatories to The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade.
He was born on 10th November 1735, the 9th son of the Archdeacon of Northumberland. By the time of his death on 6th July 1813 he had taken the English legal and political establishment and shaken it until it gave up all pretence that slavery was legal. He was a fervent campaigner for civil liberties.
The story began in London when a Jamaican planter called David Lisle brought one of his slaves, Jonathan Strong, to England. In 1765 he beat Strong to near blindness with a pistol and threw him out. Granville Sharp rescued Strong, paid for four and a half months of hospital treatment and then obtained work for him with Mr. Brown, an apothecary in Fenchurch Street.
Two years later Lisle saw Strong at work and decided to reclaim his ‘property’. He kidnapped Strong and had him thrown into prison to await shipment back to Jamaica. Strong got a message to Granville Sharp. Granville informed Sir Robert Kite, the magistrate, that Strong had been imprisoned without cause. Kite released Strong using the 1697 writ of Habeas Corpus, ‘that you have the body.’ This writ is used to release those who have been imprisoned without being charged with any crime.
Lisle viewed Strong as his ‘property’. He was not prepared to be deprived of him. He decided to charge Granville with robbery. This was an action he lived to regret.
Granville was a clerk in the Ordnance Office. He was not a lawyer. He knew nothing about legal technicalities. But he was determined to fight Lisle’s charge. He says in his memoirs that he “never once opened a law book to consult it, till on occasion of this present case.” But once he did open the books, he found ample evidence to back his instinctive belief that there was no such thing as slavery in England.
Firstly, there was the 1102 Council of London decree stating, “Let no-one dare hereafter to engage in the infamous business, prevalent in England, of selling men like animals.” Next he quoted Magna Carta Article 39, “no freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in anyway destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor will we send upon him except upon the lawful judgement of the land.” Then he found Act 32 of the reign of Henry V111 regarding aliens and strangers, “They are the King’s subjects within the realm and as such must be under the protection of the laws of the realm.”
He argued that there was nothing in English law to justify the masters of slaves claiming property rights over them. When Lisle eventually brought the action for robbery against Granville, it failed and he had to pay triple costs.
But that was far from the end of the matter. On 20th February 177, thanks to Granville’s efforts, a Mr Stapylton was brought before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield for kidnapping a former slave, Thomas Lewis. Granville had used the Habeas Corpus writ again and rescued Lewis. Stapylton was found guilty. But L.C.J. Mansfield sidestepped the real issue of illegal slavery and found Stapylton guilty on the grounds he could not prove ownership of Lewis. Mansfield baulked at declaring the truth, that slavery was illegal in England. He was trying to protect the plantation owners’ vested interests. It took another case, that of James Somerset, to force Mansfield on June 22nd 1772 to deliver a judgement stating, finally, that slavery was illegal in England. After seven long years, Granville’s tenacity had won the day.
However, the story did not end there. Many of those who were freed went on to starve as a result of this judgment. They had no homes and if they could not get work then they were reduced to begging. Poor relief, scant as it was, in England at that time was available to everyone but only in their birthplace, their home parish. The freed slaves had not been born in an English parish so could not access relief. Granville’s solution was to raise the money to establish Granville Town or The Province of Freedom in Sierra Leone. He wanted to provide land and homes for them. The first 400 settlers arrived on 15th May 1787. That original settlement later became Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
In spite of his years of dedicated hard work in the cause of freedom, he never became rich. When he died his total wealth was under £7500. He is buried in All Saints Church, Fulham.