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I note that slavery was made expressly legal in metropolitan France in the 18th century.

In England there was a judicial ruling by Lord Mansfield confirming that slavery was not permitted in England (but not affecting slavery in the colonies).

Extract from the Wikipedia article on William Mirray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Murray%2C_1st_Earl_of_Mansfield

James Somerset, a slave brought to England by his master, a Mr. Stewart of Virginia, brought suit against him on 14 May 1772. Lord Mansfield rendered his verdict in favor of Somerset on 22 June 1772.

"On the part of Somerset, the case which we gave notice should be decided, this day, the Court now proceeds to give its opinion. The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it's so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged."

Mansfield concluded that there was no legal backing for slavery in England. Furthermore, the Somerset case is the origin of the following words about English common law (although Mansfield himself never said them) -- words that have been memorized by British pupils ever since.

"The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin."

It seems extraordinary that European powers were so willing to permit and encourage slavery and the slave trade in colonial territories, even at times when it was prohibited by their own domestic law.

by Gary J on Thu Jun 15th, 2006 at 09:10:03 AM EST

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