ABOLITION & EMANCIPATION
Part 4: The Granville Sharp Papers from Gloucestershire Record Office
Part 1 of our series Abolition and Emancipation brought together the papers of six key individuals involved in the fight for the abolition of slavery. The collections held at the Huntington Library covered material from Thomas Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Martineau, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Wilberforce.
Parts 2 and 3 covered the Slavery Collections from the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool documenting all aspects of slave trading - including business records, plantation papers, log books, and the Liverpool Register of Merchant Ships.
This fourth part covers the entire collection of letters and papers of Granville Sharp (1735-1813), one of the leading and most influential figures involved in the emancipation and abolition of the slave trade. Granville Sharp, a remarkable man, commonly regarded as ‘the father of the abolitionist cause’, was born in Durham in 1735. The ninth and youngest son of the Rev Thomas Sharp, and grandson of John Sharp, Archbishop of York, he was educated at Durham Grammar School before being apprenticed to a quaker linendraper in Tower Hill, London in 1750. In 1758 at the age of twenty three he obtained a post as a junior civil servant in the ordnance department; a decision considered by some to be a little eccentric considering his family background.
Then, in 1765 Sharp befriended a young black man, Jonathan Strong. He first met Strong at his brother’s surgery where he was struck by the pitiful sight of a young man who had been badly beaten by his master, David Lisle. Sharp later wrote at length - some 11 pages - and in great detail concerning his thoughts and emotions following this meeting, [see "An Account of the Occasion which compelled Granville Sharp to study Lawand undertake the Defence of Negroe Slaves in England" (Ms 13/3/28 - reel 70)].
In the period following, Sharp involved himself in a series of legal battles for the freedom of such men as Jonathan Strong, Thomas Lewis and James Somerset; slaves brought to England by their owners. His commitment was strong, and in order to fight these battles successfully he spent much time studying the law of personal liberty.
Sharp managed to persuade the Lord Mayor to release Strong as a free man, and then set about prosecuting Lisle for assault and battery (on the slave). Lisle issued a counter-suit charging Sharp with unlawfully detaining the property of another person. Some of the judges including Yorke, Talbot and Mansfield lined up against Sharp, but at length, and after involving himself in other similar cases with varying degrees of success, Sharp managed to persuade William Blackstone to join his cause. As a result, he gained a famous victory in 'the case against
J Somersett, 1772' which established the principle that
“as soon as any slave sets his foot upon English territory, he becomes free.”
Having won this victory, Sharp then turned his attention to the slave trade in general and the issue of Slavery in the colonies. Throughout this period Sharp had continued with his post within the ordnance department but, in 1776 with the American War of Independence raging his conscience led him to resign his position.
Sharp was now left without means, having spent his patrimony in the ‘cause of emancipation’, and his brothers, William and James, who were by then in a prosperous position, made provision for him.
Sharp’s philanthropic activities continued for the rest of his life, although the abolition of slavery still remained his main interest. Sharp published tracts and began corresponding with bishops with a view to establishing a society for the abolition of slavery. The British abolitionist movement was founded in 1787 and, as Sharp was considered 'father of the movement' he was appointed chairman. His correspondents included Pitt, and La Fayette and Brissot, both leaders of a similar movement in France. In 1783 Sharp conceived the idea of establishing a home for freed slaves, and with the help of Thomas Clarkson and others a colony for freed slaves was set up in Sierra Leone.
Throughout his life Sharp maintained this active and energetic enthusiasm embracing many issues such as:
- the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society
- the work for the African Institution (founded in 1807)
- the work for the Society for the Propogation of the Gospel
- his attempts to end duelling
- his campaign to abolish the press-gang as a method of enlisting sailors
The Granville Sharp papers held at Gloucestershire Record Office provide a rich souce for the study of many aspects of late eighteenth century life especially Sharp’s involvement with the abolition and emancipation of slaves. Sharp wrote in a flowing conversational style, and many of the documents contain a high level of detail.
The collection is divided into six sections.
General Correspondence c1772 - c1804
The general correspondence which covers a period of nearly 50 years and contains detail and comment on contemporary events of major significance, notably the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars, and the American War of Independence. Some of the many correspondents and their topics of discussion are:
Lord Abingdon, writing on the need for Parliamentary reform; John Adams, writing on the episcopacy in America; David Barclay, concerning the Spanish regulations on slavery, 1807; Marquis de Belleguarde, discussing Sharp’s interpretation of the apocalypse in the light of the French Revolution; Anthony Benezet, exchanges describing the progress of opposition to slavery in America and Quaker views; William Blackstone, writing on slavery and jurisprudence; Jacob Bryant, writing on the origin of negroes; the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing on the settlement of Sierra Leone, episcopacy in America, cross-dressing in plays, and Roman Catholic emancipation; Major John Cartwright (Boston), concerning the settlement in Sierra Leone and condemning American Commissioners in the House of Commons; Thomas Clarkson, writing on European slavery; the Committee of Correspondence (Connecticut), writing on the spread of missionary work in America, 1797-1798; the Earl of Dartmouth, concerning unfair treatment of Caribees in St Vincent, slavery in America, and the necessity of peace with America, 1772-1781.
Rev Robert Findlay, writing on slavery, emigration of Scottish Highland families to America, and roman catholicism; Charles James Fox, on Irish affairs, 1782; Benjamin Franklin, on frankpledge, episcopacy in America and paper currency, 1775-1788; Mrs Gordon, on slavery and the colonies; Rev Samuel Hopkins, (Rhode Island) on problems of the Sierra Leone colony and desire to free blacks in Massachusetts to return to Africa; Mr King (American Ambassador), plans for laying out towns which may be useful in American black settlements; Lafayette, writing on the French Revolution and the establishment of a society for the abolition of the slave trade in Paris; Dr Lanthenas, on the French Revolution and emigrées.
Zachary Macaulay, on an unfortunate death and on the Susoo language. James Madison (Virginia), on books for College of William and Mary sent by Sharp, passages in scripture and church and government in America, 1791-1800; John Moreton, writing on the reaction of slave-owners in Grenada to parliamentary legislation; Lord North, urging immediate redress of slavery, James Pemberton (president of Pennsylvania Society for promoting abolition of slavery), on abolition of slavery; Spencer Percival, on America and the East Indies; William Pitt, on Parliamentary reform.
Benjamin Rush (Philadelphia), on Anglo-American relations, African church and on religious and moral themes; Ann Jemima Sharp, regarding case of Gustavus Vassa (Equiano); John and William Sharp (brothers), on slavery, Sierra Leone, episcopacy, France, National Debt, and regency question; Earl of Stanhope, writing on catholic emancipation, Ireland, and Sierra Leone; Lord Teignmouth, writing on British & Foreign Bible Society, unfortunate affairs in Sierra Leone, and protection of King during “unhappy disorder”; Henry Thornton, on slavery; George Washington, speech at opening of Congress, 1795; and William Wilberforce, on slave ships, arming of catholics and free constitutional militia.
Correspondence as Executor / Trustee, c1782 - c1810
Listed in alphabetical order this section covers an interesting selection of correspondence mainly concerning the estates of women, such as:
Mrs Booth, thought to have been murdered by her servants, 1796; Mrs Blick, regarding her marriage settlement, 1793-1795, and Mrs Maria Perry, concerning the lengthy legal case about the Lockyer estate, heard at Chancery.
Memoranda, Literary Manuscripts, etc 1743 - c1804
This section contains Granville Sharp’s writings as well as pamphlets, newspapers, notes and other material which Granville Sharp amassed in pursuit of his many campaigns and interests. Topics covered are Religion; Slavery and Colonisation; Parliamentary Reform; Pressing; and Various items.
- the occasion which first compelled Granville Sharp to study law and undertake the defence of Negro slaves
- copies of letters concerning national defence through the system of frankpledge
- manuscript against pressing by General Oglethorpe, 'The Sailor’s Advocat' (argues against pressing)
- printed resolutions made by the committee of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, April 1791
- newspapers containing articles relating to the slave-trade, 1783-1794
Diaries and Commonplace Books, c1772 - c1818
Included in this section are commonplace books covering:
- religious, moral and ethical topics
- extracts from his pocket books / diaries
Other Papers, 1682 - 1810
Topics in this section include:
- pamphlets by Granville Sharp, and others, on slavery - an example being "An argument in the case of James Somersett, a Negro" and "An essay on the treatment and conversion of African slaves in the colonies, 1784"
- papers relating to James Powell, an indentured servant in Virginia whom Granville Sharp tried to trace
- awards to Granville Sharp in recognition of the value of his work towards the promotion of the abolition of slavery from such organisations as the Senate of Harvard University, and the Pennsylvania Society.
All of this remarkable and fascinating material is included in this unique collection of the letters and papers of Granville Sharp, covering every aspect of his very full and active life. They allow the reader to understand more fully, and to study in depth, the life, struggles and victories of 'the father of the abolitionist cause'.