Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Amazing Mr. Sharp and The End of British Slavery

A humble British ordnance clerk led the drive to end the slave trade, founded a nation, and influenced the American Revolution, all without ever leaving his native England.

            On a back street of London, a brutally beaten young black man named Jonathan Strong dragged himself to the nearest home in a desperate plea for help. Just moments earlier his American slave master had pistol-whipped him and left him for dead.  It was providential that the young slave arrived at the home of Dr. William Sharp.  The good doctor treated the young man’s wounds and nursed him back to health.  But it would be William’s younger brother Granville, a British ordnance clerk, who would make the greatest impact on the young man’s life.  The case would take Granville Sharp to the highest levels of juris prudence and politics to bring an end to the slave trade in Great Britain. .
Today the name Granville Sharp is virtually unknown, except to students of New Testament Greek, who must memorize the substance of “Granville Sharp’s Rule” concerning the use of the definite article.  But his most important accomplishments remain largely unrecognized.
On that momentous day in 1765, Mr. Sharp began a campaign of writing and legal action that would lead to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Once the slave Jonathan Strong was healthy again, his owner demanded his return. Granville Sharp, outraged by the audacious demand, began researching English law and wrote a treatise titled, On the Injustice of Tolerating Slavery In England. The content of this book was so compelling that the slave owner decided not to pursue legal action. Jonathan Strong became a free man.
But Granville Sharp was not content with the victory. He sought a case that would set a precedent for ending slavery once and for all.  He found it in the 1772 case of James Somerset.  Somerset had been brought to England by his Virginian slave owner. While in England, Somerset filed suit for freedom, asserting that since slavery was not legal in England, he was a free man. Since Sharp was not a lawyer, he did not participate openly in the case, but he directed it behind the scenes.  The trial turned out to be a lengthy and contested one, but at last Lord Mansfield delivered the verdict on June 22, 1772: “As soon as any slave sets his foot on English ground, he becomes free.”
The abolitionist ball was rolling and gaining speed. Granville Sharp became known to abolitionists on both sides of the Atlantic.  In England, he joined with Parliamentarian William Wilberforce, hynm writer and former slave ship captain John Newton, and others to form the Clapham Sect, a group committed to the abolition of the slave trade and slavery in all British colonies.
Granville Sharp’s love of freedom inevitably led him to write in support of the American colonies’ cause for representation in the British Parliament.  In 1774 he published the pamphlet, A Declaration of the People’s Natural Rights to a Share in the Legislature, Which is the Fundamental Principle of the British Constitution.  During Benjamin Franklin's sojourn in London, he met with Granville Sharp, who gave him 250 copies of the pamphlet. Franklin immediately sent them to America, where the text was reprinted throughout the colonies, 7000 copies by a Boston publisher alone. According to Professor Daniel B. Wallace, the text and concepts of Sharp’s treatise are very similar to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Once hostilities commenced between the American colonies and Great Britain, Sharp felt he could no longer in good conscience serve as an ordnance clerk, dispensing weapons that would be used against the Americans, so he resigned.  His brothers supported his decision and assisted him financially.  Granville was now free to write and publish more on the causes most dear to him.
Following the American victory in the Revolution, former American slaves who had fought for the British now found themselves homeless in London.  A spokesman for the freed slaves, Mr. Smeathman, approached Granville Sharp with a proposal to purchase land for a new colony on the west coast of Africa.  The enterprise had scarcely begun when Smeathman died on April 15, 1786.  Undaunted, Sharp carried forward the plan with funds raised by the Clapham Sect and purchased over a quarter of a million acres from a local chief in Sierra Leone. The land included an excellent harbor, St. George’s Bay.  One year later, four hundred former slaves and fifty Europeans sailed on the maiden voyage to the new free colony.
Though Granville Sharp never left his native England, the new African colony honored him by naming their capital Granville Town.  Eventually, the city was renamed Freetown, but another community further inland is still named Granville Town.
It is hardly conceivable that a man who helped end the slave trade, founded a country, and influenced the American Declaration of Independence could remain unknown to most of the world.  But by all accounts, Granville Sharp’s character was such that he would have wanted it that way.