‘In a Country of Liberty?’: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772)

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The case of James Somerset brought into public view the inherent contradiction between the two core values of British life in the eighteenth century: liberty and property. Somerset had been captured in Africa as a boy and sold to a merchant with whom he subsequently travelled in America and Europe. Aged about thirty he left his master’s London house and refused to return. Upon being recaptured by slave hunters he was confined in irons and taken on board a ship bound for Jamaica, to be sold once more. Abolitionist friends publicized his situation and applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus. The case was immediately seen as a test of the legality of slavery in England.

In this case (Rex v. Knowles, ex parte Somersett, 1772) arguments about the nature and history of villeinage played a crucial role. While abolitionists, led by Granville Sharp, maintained that English villeinage became obsolete because English law favoured freedom, defenders of slavery mobilized the category of villeinage as slavery’s logical precedent and analogue. The lawyers for James Somerset argued against state support for domestic slavery by claiming that villeinage was no precedent: it was ‘a slavery in blood and family, one uninterruptedly transmitted through a long line of ancestors’. This definition delineated villeinage as a specifically English status proven ‘by other villeins of the same blood such as were descended from the same common male stock’. William Davy, Serjeant-at-Law and one of the lawyers representing Somerset, argued for Somerset's release on the grounds that as an institution villeinage was ‘confined to Complexion and… confined to a particular Quarter of the World’. In other words, villeins were English by blood, tied to England and their status by family, whiteness, and place. Lacking this lineage or historical claim, abducted Africans could never occupy this legal category.

This article examines the consequences of empire at home and how the law was used to navigate the real and imagined relationships created in empire’s wake. Mingling on the periphery and in the metropole had confusing implications for economic, political, and legal institutions as well as for individual physical bodies. The association of villeinage with whiteness that took place through the arguments presented in Somerset's case was necessary in order to distinguish between free and enslaved people, colonizers and colonized, English and African. The case provided an opportunity to clarify boundaries by creating and fixing legal categories derived from descent and race.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberdbq050
Pages (from-to)5-29
Number of pages25
JournalHistory Workshop Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Oct 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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