Sharpe was Possibly the Most Prominent of the Abolitionists and today, is certainly the most celebrated.? Sharp wrote numerous articles about slavery, religious history and now and then turned his hand to Social theory.
He was born in Durham on 10 November 1735 and was one of eight children. He was sent to London to become an apprentice to a linen draper, he missed out on the Formal education that his older brothers had received. Gretchen Gerzina suggests that ‘One might expect Sharp to have Chaffed at such Menial work, especially when his brothers were all in Processional Careers’. But she goes on to point out that Sharp seemed to be working in manual professions for a reason. He was learning the views and arguments of his many Employers. Because they were all from different backgrounds, he saw the value of their differing perspectives on life.? He Said ‘This extraordinary experience has taught me to make a proper distinction between the OPINIONS of men and their PERSONS’.
This was a man who seemed to never tire. He worked full time but really became involved with the abolitionists proper when a Black man called Jonathan Strong came to his brothers surgery badly beaten (Pistol whipped by his master.)
Sharp went on to fight the cases of a great many slaves. He was the chairman of the ‘Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ informed of the kidnaping of Henry Demane thanks (indirectly) to Ottobah Cugganno. Demane was saved from transportation to the Plantations.
In 1769 he Published “A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery Or of admitting the least claim of private property in the persons of men, in England”
This Challenged the country’s legal establishment declaring that legally ” As soon as a Negro comes into England he becomes Free”
Eventually though would come his most famous case where he represented James Somerset. In What for ever more would become known as the “Somerset ruling” Sharp fought and won a battle which allowed Somerset to stay in England. Even though his master, A Virginia planter wanted to take him back to the plantations in the west Indies.
Sharp argued that everyone coming into this country was subject to its laws and protection. Somerset had run away and then been recaptured by his master, that was kidnapping, according to James Mansfield, part of Sharps legal team, Not Lord Mansfield the case Judge)
Somerset had every right to abscond because he was only property in the West Indies not here in England.
After much deliberation Lord Mansfield found in favour of Somerset and Sharp won the case, However many people misunderstood the ruling believing that the ruling meant that all the Slaves in Britain were automatically Free.
What it in fact meant was that the masters could not legally force a slave to leave the country against his own will.