Home Slavery Resources British Abolitionists Olaudah Equiano Ignatius Sancho Ottobah Cugoano Naturalists Places Bookshop Contact About

Granville Sharp (1735-1813)


Granville Sharp was born on 10 November 1735 in Durham, North-East England. His father, an archdeacon with a small income, sent Sharp to be educated at the local grammar school but, at the age of 15, Sharp was apprenticed to a London Quaker linendraper, the first of a number of linendrapers from various Christian sects (he also worked for an atheist). Sharp taught himelf Greek and Hebrew in his spare time and, by 1758, had moved out of linendraping and into a minor post, the first of many, as a clerk in the civil service. In the late 1750s and early 1760s Sharp worked on his antiquarian, theological, and linguistic hobbies, publishing the first of his many works in 1765. From this point on, rarely a year went past without Sharp publishing one or more works, often on rather arcane topics.

The direction of Sharp's life was suddenly changed as the result of a chance meeting in 1765. Sharp's brother William was a doctor who gave free treatment to the poor of the City of London. While visiting his brother, Sharp noticed a young black man waiting in the queue who had been badly beaten, as it turned out, by his 'master', David Lisle. Lisle had beaten the young man, whose name was Jonathan Strong, with the butt of his pistol and had thrown him into the street as if for dead. The brothers undertook to care for Strong and, after two years, he seemed fully recovered. At this point Lisle caught a glimpse of him and realised that the slave he had left for dead could still make him a tidy profit. Unknown to Strong, Lisle sold the young man to a Jamaica planter called James Kerr for £30. He then arranged for Strong to be kidnapped and sent back to the Caribbean. Strong appealed to his previous benefactors, and Sharp brought his case up before the Lord Mayor of London. The mayor agreed that Strong had committed no crime and should thus be set free. Kerr immediately tried to sue Sharp, while Lisle demanded a duel. Sharp ignored both. In the end no-one had the stomach (or the cash) for a legal battle. Strong himself, his health permanently damaged from Lisle's beating, died at the age of 25, in 1770.

Despite the unsatisfactory outcome, Sharp decided to devote his time to forcing a definitive legal ruling on the question of whether a slave could compelled to leave the country. As a result of his researches, he published in 1769 A Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of admitting the least claim of private property in the persons of men, in England, etc, the first major work of anti-slavery by a British author. The book amasses a considerable volume of legal arguments against slavery. Specifically, it refutes the ruling made by Yorke and Talbot in 1729 that slaves remain the property of their owners in England as well as in the colonies. These legal arguments are supported by appeals to what would, just a few years later, be described as 'the rights of man'. The publication brought Sharp into contact with Anthony Benezet, the Pennsylvania Quaker who had already published anti-slavery works on both sides of the Atlantic. Together, they would also correspond with John Wesley to produce the first sustained, if informal, campaign against British slavery.

In the meantime, Sharp added practical action to his legal researches. In the late 1760s, it was not at all unusual for slaves and former slaves to be kidnapped and forcibly put aboard ships bound for the colonies in the New World. Sharp made it his practice to find out about these cases and bring them to law, which he did with varying degrees of success in the cases of Mary Hylas, Thomas Lewis, and three other kidnapped former slaves. In each instance, however, the courts carefully refrained from making a definitive ruling that would set a precedent. Instead, they judged each case on its own terms, so as to avoid changing or interpreting the law in a way that would hamper the activities of the slave traders. Finally, with the case of James Somerset (or Sommersett), Sharp appeared to have the opportunity he needed to force a final ruling.

James Somerset was the property of Charles Stewart, a customs officer from Boston, Massachusetts, then a British colony in North America. Stewart brought Somerset to England in 1769, but in 1771 Somerset escaped. He was recaptured in November and imprisoned on a ship bound for Jamaica, also a British colony. At this point, Sharp intervened and the captain of the ship was ordered to produce Somerset before the court of King's Bench. The judge, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, ordered a hearing for the following January. In fact, following an adjournment, it was not until February 1772 that the case was heard. In the meantime, it had attracted a great deal of attention in the press, and members of the public were forthcoming with donations to fund lawyers for both sides of the argument. When the case was heard, five advocates appeared for Somerset, speaking at three separate hearings between February and May. These lawyers included Francis Hargrave, a young lawyer who made his reputation with this, his first case. Essentially, it was argued that, while colonial law might permit slavery, those laws did not apply in England, nor could such an important law exist in England unless it had been specifically enacted by Parliament. This had not taken place. Moreover, English contract law did not allow for any person to enslave himself, nor could any contract be binding without the person's consent. The arguments thus focused on legal details rather than humanitarian principles. When the two lawyers for Charles Stewart put their case, they argued that property was paramount and that it would be dangerous to free all the black people in England. Lord Mansfield, having heard both sides of the argument, retired to make his decision, and prevaricated for over a month. Finally, on 22 June 1772, he made his ruling: "no master was ever allowed here to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service, or for any other reason whatever". Somerset was discharged, and his supporters, who included both black and white Londoners, immediately celebrated a great victory. In fact, the victory was less than complete. Mansfield had not ruled that slavery was illegal in England, merely that no-one had a right "to take a slave by force to be sold abroad". Slavery still existed in England. Moreover, little provision was made for enforcing the judgement, and slaves were still forcibly taken to the plantations in the years to come. One such incident, in 1773, inspired Thomas Day and John Bicknell to write their poem The Dying Negro. Another incident, recorded by Olaudah Equiano in 1774, led to the attempt to rescue John Annis.

For the next fifteen years, Sharp continued his campaign against slavery although, despite the appearance of a few pamphlets by Benezet and Wesley, he often seemed to be labouring alone. He also, during the 1770s, involved himself in other charitable and legal campaigns including a campaign against the press-gang. In July 1776, finding himself opposed to the war which had just broken out between Great Britain and its American colonies, he resigned his position in the Ordnance Department rather than be part of the government machine sending war materials to America. Although nearly penniless, he was supported by his wealthy brothers, and was now able to concentrate his efforts on his campaigns. Accordingly, he produced no fewer than four anti-slavery pamphlets in 1776.

In the early 1780s, Sharp was approached by Olaudah Equiano who had come across reports of a massacre on board a slave ship. It emerged that Luke Collingwood, master of the slave ship Zong, had ordered 132 enslaved people to be thrown overboard to their death in order, he claimed, to save drinking water. Back in London, the ship's owners attemped to claim the value of the slaves on insurance. Sharp was instrumental in bringing the murders into the public eye and, while no-one was prosecuted, the incident mobilised public feeling against the slave trade. Later in the 1780s, Sharp became a supporter of the ultimately disastrous Sierra Leone resettlement project. In the early 1780s, the numbers of poor black people in London had grown considerably as former slaves who had fought for the British in the American War came to London to receive the freedom and wages they had been promised. Most were never paid, and were forced into destitution. The plan, masterminded by Henry Smeathman and Jonas Hanway, was to "resettle" these former slaves in a new colony in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Sharp contributed an idealistic document, his Short Sketch of temporary regulations ... for the intended settlement on the Grain Coast of Africa, near Sierra Leona, to the debate. In the event, the intended colonists realised that the scheme did not have their interests at heart. Black leaders such as Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano withdrew their support. In 1787, 374 mostly black colonists did in fact sail for Sierra Leone, but the colony, ravaged by war and disease, failed. By 1791, only 60 of the colonists survived.

Sharp's role in the Sierra Leone project, now seen as deeply problematic, was not generally seen in that light at the time. He continued to play an active role in what was by now the burgeoning abolition movement. In 1787, he was one of the committee of people, mostly Quakers, who set up the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade. Seen by the committee as "the father of the movement", he was appointed chairman. In this role he continued as an active campaigner, working closely with Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, and personally lobbying both William Pitt, the Prime Minister, and Charles James Fox, the leader of the opposition. He also corresponded with leaders of the French abolition society, Les Amis des Noirs. Nevertheless, despite the respect in which he was held for his abolitionist work, Sharp was still thought of as an eccentric who believed that the day of judgement was at hand (and that Napoleon was the antichrist), who suggested odd and impractical innovations to the officials at the War Office (such as giving all soldiers a bale of wool to protect them from musket shots), and who wrote pamphlets on almost every topic, from medieval government to colonial architecture and town planning. More central in his day was his religious work, particularly among evangelical Anglicans. He founded a campaign to introduce episcopacy into the newly independent United States of America, a campaign which culminated in 1787 in the consecration of the Bishops of New York and Pennsylvania, and the formation of the American Episcopalian Church. His most famous piece of scholarship is the linguistic principle now known as "Sharp's Rule". Granville Sharp died in Fulham, south-west London, on 6 July 1813. He is buried in Fulham Churchyard. There is memorial to him there, and another in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

  © Brycchan Carey 2001-2014


Selected Works

According to his biography Prince Hoare, Sharp published 61 works during his lifetime. Many of these were linguistic tracts and (or) scriptural exegeses. Of these, the most celebrated work, outlining the grammatical principle now known as "Sharp's rule", is:
  • Remarks on the uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek text of the New Testament; containing many new proofs of the Divinity of Christ from passages which are wrongly translated in the common English Version (Durham, 1798)
Many of Sharp's works were tracts opposing slavery. His most influential was his first and often reprinted tract, A Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency... Among his most important anti-slavery works were:
  • A Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of admitting the least claim of private property in the persons of men, in England, etc (London, 1769)

  • An Appendix to the Representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery, etc. (London, 1772)

  • The Just Limitation of Slavery in the laws of God, compared with the unbounded claims of the African Traders and British American Slaveholders (London, 1776)

  • The Law of Liberty, or, Royal Law, by which all mankind will certainly be judged! Earnestly recommended to the serious consideration of all slave-holders and slavedealers (London, 1776)

  • The Law of Passive Obedience, or Christian submission to personal injuries; wherein is shewn, that the several texts of Scripture which command the entire submission of servants or slaves to their masters, cannot authorize the latter to exact an involuntary servitude, nor ... justify the claims of modern Slaveholders [London, 1776?]

  • The Law of Retribution; or, a serious warning to Great Britain and her colonies, founded on unquestionable examples of God's temporal vengeance against tyrants, slave-holders and oppressors (London, 1776)

  • Short Sketch of temporary regulations ... for the intended settlement on the Grain Coast of Africa, near Sierra Leona (London, 1786)

  • Extract of a Letter to a Gentleman in Maryland; wherein is demonstrated the extreme wickedness of tolerating the Slave Trade, etc. (London: J. Phillips, 1793)

  • Serious Reflections on the Slave Trade and Slavery, wrote in March 1797 (London, 1805)

  • The System of Colonial Law, compared with the Eternal Laws of God; and with the indispensable principles of the English Constitution. [Extract of a letter dated 3rd Oct. 1806, on the wickedness ... of tolerating slavery, etc.] (London, 1807)

Selected Works in Facsimile

  • Kitson, Peter, et al, eds, Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation: Writings in the British Romantic Period (London: Pickering and Chatto, 1999), 8 vols.

Secondary Works: Biography and Special Studies

  • Grant, Hester, The Good Sharps: The Brothers and Sisters Who Remade Their World (London: Chatto & Windus, 2020). | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

  • Hoare, Prince, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq. Composed from his own manuscripts, and other authentic documents ... With observations on Mr. Sharp's Biblical criticisms, by the ... Bishop of St. Davids (London: Henry Colburn, 1820)

  • Lascelles, Edward Charles Ponsonby, Granville Sharp and the Freedom of the Slaves in England (London: Humphrey Milford, 1928)

  • Pollard, Albert Frederick, 'Granville Sharp' in The Dictionary of National Biography, XVII, pp. 1339-1342

  • Walvin, James, The Zong: A Massacre, The Law and the End of Slavery (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011). Very readable account of Sharp's involvment with the Somerset case and the Zong Massacre case. | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

Secondary Works: The Case of James Somerset

A considerable historiography has grown up around this case. Together, these titles also form the most important discussions of Sharp's anti-slavery work. The most significant contributions to the debate are:
  • Fryer, Peter, Staying Power: a history of black people in Britain (London: Pluto Press, 1984) pp. 115-126. | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

  • Hargrave, Francis, An argument in the case of James Sommersett a Negro, lately determined by the court of King's Bench (London: F. Hargrave, 1772)

  • Howell, Thomas, A complete collection of state trials and proceedings for high treason and other misdemeanors from the earliest period to the present time, 26 vols, (London: T.C. Hansard, 1814), XX, cols. 1-82

  • Lyall, Andrew, Granville Sharp's Cases on Slavery (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2017). | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |

  • Nadelhaft, Jerome, 'The Somersett Case and Slavery: Myth, Reality, and Repercussions', Journal of Negro History, LI (1966), 193-208

  • Oldham, James, 'New light on Mansfield and Slavery', Journal of British Studies, 27 (1988), 45-68

  • Oldham, James, The Mansfield Manuscripts and the Growth of English Law in the Eighteenth Century, 2 vols (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), II, 1221-1244

  • Shyllon, Folarin, Black Slaves in Britain (London: Oxford University Press for the Institute of Race Relations, 1974), passim, but particularly pp. 77-176.

  • Wise, Steven M., Though the Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery (Cambridge MA: Da Capo Press, 2005). The only full-length book describing the case. | Available from: Amazon.com (USA) | Amazon.co.uk (UK and Ireland) |


British Abolitionists Main Page logo Twitter link image Mail link image Home link image