By Mike Kaye
Last updated 2011-02-17
Africans seeking to escape slavery were pursued by their former masters (as illustrated by the advert above) and the courts were used as a means to try and protect Africans from being forced back into slavery.
In 1772, Granville Sharp, an ardent abolitionist, defended James Somerset, an enslaved African, who had escaped and been recaptured. This proved to be a crucial test case in which Sharp argued that slavery was unlawful in Britain. The judge, Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield, attempted to free Somerset without setting a precedent, but most observers interpreted the judgment as outlawing slavery in Britain and it provided a legal avenue for many enslaved people to obtain their freedom.
But in 1783, the limits of legal protection were clearly shown when Sharp was prevented from bringing a prosecution for murder against the captain of the slave ship 'Zong', despite clear evidence that he threw 132 slaves overboard so that he could claim against his insurance for 'lost property'.
Judge Mansfield ruled: '...that the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard.' It was therefore a disputed insurance claim, not murder. The case highlighted the injustice and inhumanity of the slave trade and convinced some prominent individuals that the law itself needed to be changed.
The courts continue to be used by campaigners today as a means of protecting people's rights and to challenge laws or their interpretation. For example, with respect to cases of euthanasia; proposals to remove income support from asylum seekers; and extradition cases.
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