Trial and Triumph: The Somerset Event

22nd June 2022 was the 250th anniversary of the landmark slavery legal case of 1772 – Somerset v Stewart. To mark this anniversary, English Heritage put together a public event including a panel discussion and invited the Chineke! Junior Orchestra to Kenwood House to perform newly commissioned music inspired by the life of James Somerset.

Group of young musicians and their instruments at Kenwood

A brief summary of Somerset v Stewart

At the age of about 8 the boy we now know as James Somerset was captured and taken from West Africa by European slavers, to be sold in the Americas. He was purchased by Scottish merchant Charles Steuart (Stewart).

20 years later in 1769, Steuart relocated to England, taking James with him. During their time in England James came in contact with other Black people and white abolitionists, as well as Thomas Walkin, Elizabeth Cade and John Marlow – Quakers who were against slavery. When James was baptized in August of 1771 these three became his godparents.

Less than 2 months later, James Somerset escaped from Steuart and refused to return. On 26 November 1771, following orders from Steuart, James was kidnapped by slave hunters and taken to Captain John Knowles, where he was jailed aboard the Ann and Mary ship, awaiting transportation to Jamaica where Steuart planned to sell him on.

On 3 December, James’ godparents applied to the ‘Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus’. That meant Captain Knowles had to bring James to the court. ‘Habeas corpus’ was used to protect against false imprisonment and make sure a prisoner has been afforded due process.

Granville Sharp, who felt that the institution of slavery was at odds with the English common law and went against the British constitution, was brought in to support James’ case. It was William Murray, who at the time was Baron Mansfield and Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, who had to make the decision on whether it was (or was not) legal for Steuart and Captain Knowles to continue their plan.

On the 22nd June 1772 the decision came down that James Somerset had been illegally detained. Mansfield ruled, “Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from this decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.” Steuart could not continue with his plan and Somerset could not be forced to return to Charles Steuart. It was this ruling we celebrated.

Kenwood House was the home of William Murray, Chief Justice judge Lord Mansfield (1705-1793), the highest judge in England who made the ruling, and Kenwood House felt like the perfect setting to celebrate and remember it.

Lord Mansfield ruled that it was unlawful to transport James Somerset, an enslaved African, forcibly out of England. At the time, this was popularly taken to mean that slavery was effectively illegal in England, and sent shockwaves throughout Britain’s colonies in the Americas, helping to catalyse the abolition movement.

The Event

The event included performances of new music commissioned by English Heritage and composed and performed by young people as well as a panel discussion about the history of the Somerset case and its resonance today.

Chineke! Junior Orchestra is Europe’s first majority black and ethnically diverse youth orchestra, with over 20 members aged 11-22. To mark the anniversary of this landmark case, English Heritage commissioned young composer Tristen Jazon Treajé to create a new piece of music inspired by the story of James Somerset.

Tristen and the Chineke! musicians brought the story to life with their creativity.

All our amazing speakers and musicians outside Kenwood

The piece, ‘The Somerset v Stewart Case: Trial & Triumph’ had its debut at Kenwood House and was performed by members of the Chineke! Junior orchestra. Also performed on the night was “Dido Belle: A Musical Voyage”, which was written by members of the orchestra as part of our Stories, Sites, and Sounds project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Google Arts and Culture.

Dido Belle was the mixed-heritage niece of Lord Mansfield who lived with him at Kenwood as part of the family. Dido was the daughter of Maria Bell, an enslaved woman and Mansfield’s nephew Sir John Lindsay, a captain in the Royal Navy. When Dido was six years old, Lindsay brought her to England where she was raised by Mansfield and his wife alongside her cousin Lady Elizabeth Murray.

You can listen and learn more about the Dido Belle piece here.