Part II: The second sampling from the audio version of Somersett will introduce you to James Somersett himself. Somersett was born in Africa, transported to America with his first stop in Barbados. There he would be taught some rudimentary English, and pressed into service in the sugar plantations. After a single season in Barbados, during which he and his fellow enslaved persons were exposed to yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical illnesses, the brightest, strongest and healthiest would be transported once again to the more lucrative markets of British America. Somersett was brought to Norfolk, Virginia where he was auctioned to Charles Steuart, a British tax collector and harbor agent for that colony.
Somersett lived with Steuart as an enslaved person in Norfolk for many years, and then relocated with Steuart to Boston for a couple more years. They then went to London, and after two years, Somersett failed to return home from a marketing trip one day. After a six-week manhunt, he was captured and brought back to Steuart. Steuart, enraged, refused to accept him back and ordered his captors to take him to the wharves of London, load him onto a slave ship and transport him to Jamaica for sale to the dreaded sugar plantations (in essence, a form of capital punishment). This created a potential legal error by Steuart, that the London abolitionists seized upon.
Filing a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Somersett in December 1771, they arranged his bail and filed suit for his manumission for attempted illegal transport out of Great Britain. The case was presented before Lord Mansfield, who granted certiorari and called for a hearing in January 1772. Mansfield released Somersett to the abolitionists who took him to a safe house in London awaiting the trial.
On a clear, cold day in London on January 13, 1772, Somersett knocked on the door of abolitionist Granville Sharp, not an attorney but a self-taught legal expert who would assume the direction of the trial of Somersett v. Steuart.