Joseph Knight – Escaped Slave

Slave auction
Slave auction

Joseph Knight was  born in Africa, and taken as a slave to Jamaica.  He was sold to a Scottish landowner. He was taken to Scotland in 1769. Three years later a ruling in England (see Somersett’s Case) cast doubt on the legality of slavery under the common law. Assuming this applied to the rest of Britain he demanded wages from his owner, John Wedderburn of Ballendean, and ran away when this was refused. When Wedderburn had him arrested, Knight brought a case before the justices of the peace court in Perth.
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”.
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.

Lord Kames said “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 Negros’ 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.
There is a novel based on Joseph Knight:
Robertson, James (2004). Joseph Knight. Fourth Estate Ltd. ISBN 0-00-715025-3.

Related Articles
Scottish Corpus – Joseph Knight – Joseph Knight
Scotland Slavery – Joseph Knight

3 thoughts on “Joseph Knight – Escaped Slave

  • 19th May 2011 at 5:28 am

    Wait… he was a slave born in Afrika? So he was born a slave?

    Or he was a man born in Afrika, enslaved and then taken to Jamaica?

    • 19th May 2011 at 5:45 pm

      You have made a good point and I have amended the original text. that said it is perfectly feasible that he was a slave in Africa before being sold through the Transatlantic system.

  • 12th February 2016 at 7:09 pm

    Slavery was explicitly forbidden under a statuteofKing Henry VIII, who was horrified when a Russian nobleman arrived in England with a slave in tow, decreed that any slave setting foot on British territory was at once free, and was wise enough to have his decree enacted into law by parliament.The question of whether a slave could be transported into a jurisdiction that forbade slavery without being immediately set free was a major point of contention in the USAin the years leading up to our Civil War, The much maligned Dred Scott decision of the USSCwas on just this point:slaves who had been transported into free territory sued for their freedom in the St. Louis federal court where several such suits had succeeded despite being heard in a slave state with a jury of slave-owners.


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