Joseph Knight (slave)

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Joseph Knight was a man born in Africa and sold as a slave in Jamaica to a Scottish owner, John Wedderburn of Ballendean. Knight was made a household servant by Wedderburn and in 1769 accompanied him to Scotland where, inspired by Somersett's Case in England in which the English courts had held that slavery did not exist under English law, Knight brought a freedom suit against his master. Knight won his claim, establishing the principle that Scots law would not uphold the institution of slavery.

Early life[edit]

Joseph Knight was born in Africa and was taken to Jamaica and later, in 1769, to Scotland, to serve his master, John Wedderburn of Ballendean.

Three years later a ruling in England (see Somersett's Case) cast doubt on the legality of slavery under the common law.[1]

Knight -v- Wedderburn[edit]

In 1778, assuming that the ruling in the Sommersett case applied to the rest of Britain, Knight demanded wages from his owner, and he ran away when this was refused. Wedderburn was indignant, feeling that he had bestowed considerable gifts on Knight by educating him and taking care of him, and had the fugitive slave arrested, Knight brought a claim before the Justices of the Peace court in Perth, a case that would be known as Knight -v- Wedderburn.[2]

Appeal to the Sheriff[edit]

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’.

Appeal to the Court of Session[edit]

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. Conversely, Wedderburn's counsel argued that commercial interests, which underpinned Scotland's prosperity, should prevail.

In an unexpected decision, Lord Kames stated that '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 Negro’s 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.[3]

Later life[edit]

After the case, Knight became a free man, and married his sweetheart Annie Thompson, a woman who had also been in Wedderburn's service and had been sacked following the revelation of her relations with Knight. At this point however Knight disappears from the record; nothing further is known of his life or death.[4]

In fiction[edit]

A 2004 novel based on Knight, entitled Joseph Knight, was written by James Robertson and published by Fourth Estate Ltd.

See also[edit]


  • Oliver, Neil, A History of Scotland, Phoenix, London (2010) ISBN 0753826631


  1. ^ Technically all the ruling decided was that a slave could not be removed from England against his will, but anti-slavery groups publicised the decision widely, and said the proper interpretation was that no man within England could be held in slavery.
  2. ^ National Archives of Scotland website feature - Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? - the Joseph Knight case Retrieved May 2012
  3. ^ Court of Session, unextracted processes, National Archives of Scotland (reference CS235/K/2/2).
  4. ^ Oliver, Neil, A History of Scotland, Phoenix, London (2010) ISBN 0753826631

External links[edit]