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By Matthew Seys-Llewellyn
While racial discrimination is by no means a new phenomenon, you might naturally expect lawyers of the 18th Century to be immune from these concerns, but this is precisely the reason why a recently rediscovered letter from a lawyer sold into slavery around 1775 comes as a double surprise.
Having languished in the archives of The Law Society, interest in the recent BAFTA winning movie Twelve Years a Slave brought the remarkable letter to light last month. Written by a man called Sam Freeman, he claims to be an attorney who had been sold into slavery on Boxing Day in America by the captain who was taking him from London to Baltimore “contrary to my expectations”:
“[sold] to a Planter in the Country ab’t 14 miles from any Town for 4 years for £30 for my Passage, where I am treated more like a dog than a Christian…[to do] work to which I am an entire Stranger my poor hands are blistd [sic] in such a manner and my shoulders so bruis’d with carryg [sic] heavy burdens that life is Troublesome to me.”
As an educated man, Sam was also forced to spend his evenings tutoring his master’s children and other slaves for two hours in the evening. He explains, “this paper I was obliged to Steal out of a Book and my Ink is only Gunpowder and Water”. Deprived of legal assistance, he wrote to his friends in England to ask for help in buying back his freedom. He was fortunately able to find help with people from the local town to receive post on his behalf as his communicated home with Britain.
There are a couple of interesting things to note here. Firstly, “attorney” is a wider and older term than “solicitor” and might well cover roles such as a law clerk or a scrivener. Secondly, it isn’t immediately apparent whether Sam is black or not, although the surname “Freeman” could suggest that he or his family had formerly been slaves. The indentured labour of convicts transported from England to America as an alternative to death helped normalise attitudes to slavery, whatever the ethnicity of the unfortunate man.
One (slim) advantage that slaves had in England in 1775 was the fact that the slavery and serfdom had been abolished within the jurisdiction of England and Wales, so a slave who escaped his chains could legitimately rely on the law to prevent his forcible return – something recognised in ex parte Somerset v Stewart (1772).
Of course, I agree there are some ragged edges to that theory of personal freedom and there are certainly cases of a similar time that don’t support this dictum (such as Pearne v Lisle (1749) Amb 75, 27 ER 47). The campaign against slavery would ultimately require a commission on the topic, compensation for slave owners in British territories and the use of the British navy to intercept slave ships. The trade in slaves wouldn’t be abolished by Parliament until 1807 and slavery itself only ended in the Empire (with some savings for St Helena and parts of India) in 1833. In America it would take the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865 to free all slaves not convicted of a crime. However, we should never underestimate the intellect and resolve of people of the time who fought back with all the ingenuity and tools they had available. Reading the plight of Sam Freeman you see that is exactly what he was trying to do.
Even in more recent times the law has always offered novel alternatives in the fight against intolerance. Consider that the cricketer turned lawyer Lord Constantine first made his legal splash by arguing that being refused a bed for the night, when he had specifically confirmed in advance that being black would not be a problem, was not an offence in itself, but was a breach of contract – an argument upheld in Constantine v Imperial Hotels Ltd . It would take another twenty-one years for Parliament to pass the Race Relations Act, by which time Constantine had been called to the bar at Middle Temple and finished his term as the Trinidadian High Commissioner in London.
So, today – if you’re mulling a career in the law and worried that you might not fit in for whatever reason – spare a thought for Sam and all those since who worked to show later generations the way forward in terms of ability, equality and freedom.
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