Joseph Knight (slave)

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Joseph Knight was a man born in Africa and sold as a slave in Jamaica to John Wedderburn of Ballendean, Scotland. Wedderburn had Knight serve in his household, and took him along when he returned to Scotland in 1769. Inspired by Somersett's Case (1772) in England, in which the English courts had held that slavery did not exist under English common law, Knight brought a freedom suit against his master. Knight won his claim after two appeals, in a case that established the principle that Scots law would not uphold the institution of slavery.

Early life[edit]

Joseph Knight was born in Africa. He was captured in the slave trade and transported to Jamaica, where he was sold as a slave to John Wedderburn of Ballendean. Wedderburn educated Knight and employed him as a domestic servant. In 1769 Wedderburn returned to Scotland, taking Knight with him.

Three years later a 1772 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. He ran away when Wedderburn 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. He 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."[2]

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 considered important enough to be given a full panel of judges, including Lord Kames, a prominent 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'. They said that 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. It ruled 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.’[2]

In effect, slavery was not recognised by Scots law. Fugitive 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]

Knight was recognised as a free man. He married his sweetheart Annie Thompson, a Scottish woman who had been in Wedderburn's service as a servant. The master had sacked her following the revelation of her relations with Knight. At this point Knight and his wife disappear from the record; nothing further is known of their lives or deaths.[4][page needed]

In fiction[edit]

Joseph Knight is a 2003 novel based on the freedman and his trial, written by James Robertson and published by Fourth Estate Ltd.

See also[edit]


  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. ^ a b c "Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? - the Joseph Knight case", National Archives of Scotland website feature, 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]