He was born sometime in 1740 in Sierra Leone, the son of servants indentured to a tribal king, and was named Tombo Susu, the “surname” taken from his parents’ ancestral group. Tombo would demonstrate precocity, speaking his local Bantu language by age two and assisting in household chores by age four. At that point, he was sent to the rice fields of Sierra Leone to learn the system of sowing, tending, and harvesting the rice crop that was a staple in the local diet. Every summer, white men speaking an unknown language would come and point out a few people, who would then be bartered out and never seen again. Most of these were young girls and boys, and the men seemed to have an eye for the strongest and brightest. Tombo was no exception. At age eight he was bartered to the white men, who took him to the harbor town of Serra Leoa, and there they loaded him, with hundreds of other young persons of both sexes, on the slave-trading ship William, headed for Barbados. At the sight of a crew of white sailors, the locals spread the word that these were cannibals and that their cargo was to serve as meals at sea. Generalized crying ensued as the ship weighed anchor and left Africa behind.
The people in the hold of the ship were kept in shackles and below decks. They were given a bowl of grain soaked in water twice each day, and anyone found not to be eating, for any reason, was beaten with a short whip. The flooring below decks was grated to allow for urine and feces to drip through to the ballast but made an extremely uncomfortable base for a bed. Over the course of the seven weeks’ crossing, about one third of these captives would die. These dead would be brought out of the hold and dispatched overboard. Generally, there was an eerie quiet below decks, as all wondered about the fate of the dead and wondered who was next. When motion stopped at seven weeks (due to anchoring at Barbados), the bulkhead hatches were thrown open and the “cargo” was unloaded onto the decks. There were already many whites on board, and as the slaves came out, they were prodded and pawed, examining head, teeth, body, musculature, and much chattering went back and forth with the captain. Many of the slaves would be marked with a leather thong and paper tag around the neck, and all were then taken down the gangplank. They were headed for the auction block. The slave traders of the Caribbean knew quality, and this young African boy had quality. They would purchase him and take him to Jamaica, to the sugar plantations, for “seasoning,” a euphemism for enduring the yellow fever season. If he could survive yellow fever, learn pidgin English, the rudiments of the slavery rules, and the rudiments of the sugar industry, he might be a good bet to go to the plantations in the northern British colonies, where they paid top dollar.
On August 1, 1749, the William dropped anchor off the Chesapeake port of Norfolk, Virginia, and off-loaded cargo from the Caribbean, including a group of perhaps a dozen slaves who spoke rudimentary English. The slaves were taken to the auction block in town. Charles Steuart, a twenty-four-year-old clerk, purchased Tombo Susu for fifteen guineas, a preemptive price for a child of this age, and took him home. Tombo was destined to be a personal servant to Steuart and as such was expected to learn a reasonably extensive vocabulary, basic domestic skills like cooking and laundry, and some skills related to Steuart‘s line of work. It seems Steuart was a mercantile exchange agent in Norfolk, which included trading of slaves. In his role, Steuart was professional and businesslike, with an eye for unusually gifted slaves, and treated Tombo well. Over time, he delegated more and more responsibility to his servant as Tombo matured and learned the business of being a clerk in Norfolk. This freed Steuart for the more complex expectations and obligations of trading with the various ship captains and plantation owners who frequented his business office. One of his best customers by 1760 was George Washington, who had leased Mount Vernon from his own widowed sister-in-law (and would assume ownership two years later upon her death). Washington was always in the market for good workers for his plantation, and it became almost a standing joke in Steuart’s office, as Washington would invariably ask, “How much do you want for Tombo?”
Steuart would laugh and respond, “Tombo’s not for sale.” And the exchange became so commonplace among ships’ captains and plantation owners when they frequented Steuart’s office that Tombo himself quickly learned the response, “Tombo not for sale,” sparing Steuart from even looking up from his ledgers and always bringing a laugh.
In 1760, colonial Governor Francis Fauquier named Steuart “Receiver General” for Virginia at Norfolk, and in that role, Steuart was charged with providing for the well-being of all ships landing at Norfolk or Portsmouth, Virginia, and their passengers. As fate would have it, in 1762 a Spanish privateer was caught in a late-season storm, and the main spar was cracked. The ship, the Don Pedro Bermudez, limped into the Elizabeth River, where a local gang of street toughs prepared to board her and plunder her cargo and seize the passengers, including one noblewoman from Havana, Cuba. A local ran to Steuart’s house, raising the alarm. Steuart took up two muskets, loaded them, called Tombo (who was now twenty-one years old, muscular, and large for a typical slave), and, following a pause where their eyes met, handed Tombo a musket and told him to follow. The significance of this gesture was not lost on either man; it was highly unusual to arm a slave voluntarily and signified an incredible degree of trust. When they arrived at the Don Pedro Bermudez, the gang, armed with staves and torches, was calling out to the crew to surrender. Steuart leaped onto the bow of the ship and bade the gang stand down. Then he heard a pistol cock. He fired his musket into the air, and then he and Tombo immediately exchanged muskets. He again bade the gang disperse and then aimed his loaded musket at the leader. The torches were lowered, two or three cursed Steuart and pushed Tombo, but then they slowly walked away. Steuart, heart beating fast, reloaded the spent musket, and he and Tombo stood guard the remainder of the night. The following day, the spar was replaced and the ship set sail.
Thereafter, the degree of trust between the two men increased dramatically, and Steuart styled his young manservant “Somersett,” feeling it sounded much more dignified than “Tombo.” And they became inseparable on business trips up and down the Atlantic seaboard. They were known from Boston to Savannah, and Somersett was dressed in accordance with his status, including breaches and silk stockings. On a trip to London in 1763, Steuart was surprised to learn that the “Don Pedro Bermudez affair,” as the press had styled it, had preceded him, and that His Majesty King George III, no less, was quite impressed by the care and concern that Steuart and Somersett had afforded the ship of an ally and its helpless passengers. The king invited an audience, for which both men of course had to have a new outfit. Steuart sat for a portrait for the occasion (still held by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation), and in recognition of Steuart’s valor, George Grenville, chancellor of the exchequer, named him surveyor-general for customs for the entire Atlantic seaboard from Quebec to Virginia. Two years later, he would rise to receiver general for North America, one of the most powerful (and well-compensated) Crown posts in the British colonies.
Unfortunately, while Steuart was accruing these prestigious posts in Norfolk, the British colonies were reeling under the severe taxation of the Stamp Act, and then the Townshend Acts, and by all descriptions, Steuart remained as dutiful as ever to the Crown, enforcing the collection of these taxes throughout the colonies. This rendered him, and Somersett, far less popular than they had been merely five years previously. In that setting, Steuart decided that he needed to relocate to Boston to more effectively administer the hated taxes, despite the increased danger of mob terrorism. Perhaps he trusted the British military presence in Boston for protection. Perhaps he felt that a mercantile colony like Massachusetts was a safer area to administer mercantile decisions than a Crown colony like Virginia. For whatever reason, he and his personal slave Somersett moved to Boston in 1765. By 1769, Steuart, withstanding the chronic anger of the colonists over taxation, living in constant fear of personal violence, and growing exhausted over the unending explanation of duties and assessments, was feeling chronically ill and requested from the Privy Council permission to come to London for recuperative purposes, perhaps distant from the likes of Samuel and John Adams and the persistent rabble of Boston. The request was granted.
Steuart and Somersett arrived in London in November 1769 and established residence in Cheapside, parish St. Marylebone (or “Marleybone'' as the locals called it), and Somersett continued as Steuart’s personal aide and servant, doing the marketing and cleaning, supervising the laundry and hired transport, and generally acting as a “gentleman’s gentleman” for his master. During this time, Somersett would be free to walk through the neighborhoods of the largest city (excepting Beijing) on Earth interacting with people of every ethnic and economic stratum. In the streets, he would be subjected to the idle talk and criticism from free Black people, who would chide him about his status as an American slave: “You tink you so well-off, because you wear silk and velvet? You not well-off. You not free. We free. We want eat, we eat. We need pee, we pee. We need shit, we shit. We no ask no massah notting.”
Somersett was not alone in his status by any means. There were, at that time in Great Britain, at least ten thousand slaves working on farms, in factories, and in the cities as servants. But only a few were as “well-off” as Somersett. He was accorded an allowance and a wardrobe by Steuart and was not required to wear any neck chain or neck plate, as so many city slaves wore. Generally, when he considered the garb, the housing, and the diet of the “freemen” he regarded in the streets of East London and Southwark, he had to think his life wasn’t all that bad. And yet, he wasn’t…free. One afternoon, at the encouragement of white abolitionists in London, Somerset stepped into St. Andrew’s Cathedral, where he was baptized as “James Somersett.” This would be his legal and common name for the remainder of his life.
On about October 1, 1771, Somersett didn’t come back to the house in Cheapside. By the following day, Steuart realized that either he was a victim of foul play or that he had simply fled. And sounded an alarm. The authorities advised him to place an advertisement in the local newspapers and to post broadsheets on Tower Hill and other popular meeting sites. Steuart provided a description of Somersett and offered an unusually high reward of two guineas for his capture. While it might seem that Somersett could be hard to find, in actuality, Black Africans had few places where they could go without discovery. Even were he to change to a “freedman’s wardrobe,” (actually dressing down, dramatically, into discarded rags, in Somersett’s case) there simply weren’t enough Blacks in London at that time to allow him to disappear into a crowd. And two guineas was about two to four weeks’ wages for a day laborer, so there was plenty of inducement to find him.
On Tuesday, November 26, 1771, professional bounty hunters came to the Steuart residence, announced that they had Somersett and requested what Steuart wanted done with him. At this point Steuart became enraged.
“Haven’t I provided for him? Haven’t I given him a better life than he ever would have had in Africa? Haven’t I protected him?”
In his rage, he told the bounty hunters to take him to the wharves and load him onto a “slaver” for the Caribbean. This, for a domestic servant like Somersett, would have been tantamount to a death sentence, working menial hard labor on the sugar plantations in the heat of Jamaica or Barbados. So Somersett was clapped into shackles and placed in the hold of the ship Ann and Mary under the authority of Captain John Knowles. But his situation was not hopeless—not yet. And by never actually receiving Somersett into his custody after capture, Steuart had, unbeknownst to him, committed a serious legal error.
In 1679, the British Parliament had approved the Habeas Corpus Act, which stipulated that no one could be held in custody for over seventy-two hours without being charged with a crime before a magistrate. While originally designed to stop the arrest of political enemies of the Crown and allowing them to rot in the Tower of London, the abolitionist activists of London had seized upon this authority as an effective tool against the slave hunters. With the available funding of some wealthy and sympathetic London widows, they became accustomed to filing writs on a regular basis. The fervent hope was that someday, somehow, some bounty hunter and/or some owner was going to make a mistake filing a claim, or filing a court brief, and a slave was going to have to be freed.
The biggest shaker and mover in this entire effort was none other than Benjamin Franklin’s sole hope for his plan in London, Granville Sharp, who had pledged his time, his money, and his legal talent to the sole purpose of identifying such a case. He had informants all through the London docks, watching for captured slaves being loaded onto ships. And so, on November 27, 1771, Elizabeth Cade petitioned a writ of habeas corpus at the Court of King’s Bench, Middle Chamber, under the auspices of William Murray, First Earl Mansfield. Mansfield looked at the writ, exhaled with cheeks puffed out through pursed lips and thought, Here we go again. He filed the official case as England, the King [Rex] v. James Sommersett (sic), a Negro, but even then, and ever after, it would become known as Somersett v. Steuart, the “king” in eighteenth century Great Britain being a surrogate for the plaintiff. In answering the writ, John Knowles dutifully presented Somersett, designated “James Somerset,” before Lord Mansfield on December 9, at Serjeants’ Inn, insofar as the Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall, was already adjourned from Michaelmas term.
“Are you James Somersett?” asked Mansfield.
“Yes, sir, I am,” Somersett replied.
Mansfield then looked to Knowles. “Thank you, you are discharged.” And then said to Somersett, “Hearing is set for January 24, 1772, with a surety bond from Elizabeth Cade for one hundred forty pounds.” And he gaveled the case adjourned for the following month.
On January 13, Somersett knocked on the door of The Jewry, the London residence of Granville Sharp.