Joseph Knight was born in Africa, and taken as a slave to Jamaica. He was sold to a Scottish landowner. He was taken to Scotland in 1769. Three years later a ruling in England (see Somersett’s Case) cast doubt on the legality of slavery under the common law. Assuming this applied to the rest of Britain he demanded wages from his owner, John Wedderburn of Ballendean, and ran away when this was refused. When Wedderburn had him arrested, Knight brought a case before the justices of the peace court in Perth.
When the justices of the peace found in favour of Wedderburn, Knight appealed to the Sheriff of Perth, who found that “the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof: That the regulations in Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom”.
In 1777 Wedderburn in turn appealed to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Scotland’s supreme civil court, arguing that Knight still owed perpetual service, in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan. The case was important enough that it was given a full panel of judges including Lord Kames the important legal and social historian.
The case for Knight was helped in preparation by James Boswell and Samuel Johnson. Their argument was that ‘no man is by nature the property of another”.
Since there was no proof that Knight had given up his natural freedom, he should be set free.
Lord Kames said “we sit here to enforce right not to enforce wrong” and the court emphatically rejected Wedderburn’s appeal, ruling that “the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negros’ service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.”
In effect, slavery was not recognised by Scots law and runaway slaves (or perpetual servants) could be protected by the courts, if they wished to leave domestic service or were resisting attempts to return them to slavery in the colonies.
There is a novel based on Joseph Knight:
Robertson, James (2004). Joseph Knight. Fourth Estate Ltd. ISBN 0-00-715025-3.