Where am I? … Am I free or enslaved? …
The year was 1765, when Jonathan Strong, a young, black man, was reportedly ‘badly beaten’ by his master and left unconscious in the gutter of a London street, near death. Strong was said to be about sixteen or seventeen years old. He was enslaved in colonial Barbados before being transported to England by his owner David Lisle, who was a London lawyer and plantation owner.
Young Jonathan told how Lisle had pistol-whipped and knocked him unconscious, before abandoning him in the gutter, leaving him for dead. Strong, desperately in need of medical attention, found his way to the offices of Dr. Sharp, who turned out to be the older brother of Granville Sharp, who happened to be staying with him at the time. The brothers were horrified at Jonathan Strong’s condition and committed to assisting him in every way possible, until he got back on his feet.
Dr. Sharp had him admitted to hospital for care of his medical needs and he remained there for four and a half months, before he was well enough to leave. The brothers also supported his basic material needs of food, clothing, and shelter, until such time as he could find gainful employment. For the next two years he worked as an errand boy for an apothecary on Fenchurch Street. That is, until one day when his worst nightmare was realized – David Lisle saw him on the streets of London, had him arrested and thrown into jail. There he languished, waiting to be transported back to the West Indies, where he would again be sold into slavery. Lisle argued, that as his property, he was well within his right to do with Jonathan as he pleased. However, this modus operandi was about to be rejected within the borders of Britain.
By good fate, Granville Sharp heard of Jonathan’s plight and immediately went to his aid and the defense of his situation. He made representation to the Lord Mayor’s office, requesting that Strong be released and “after a lot of complex to-and-fro, Jonathan was eventually released.” However, the goodly Mr. Lisle remained determine to have his way as it related to Jonathan Strong, and he took the Sharp brothers to court, accusing them of depriving him of the lawful right to his property. He lost the case. Seeking resolution on his own terms, David Lisle allegedly challenged Granville Sharp to a duel. The waging of the duel and the outcome remains unknown.
However, more importantly, what is known, is that it was this circumstance that was the genesis of Granville Sharp’s life’s work to unravel the system of slavery. He devoted his life to the cause of abolishing slavery. It was his activism in championing the cause against slavery that would change the course of history. Through his early work in the Jonathan Strong case, enslavement in Great Britain was legally forbidden. Therefore, enslaved persons brought from slave holding colonies in British jurisdictions, on touching British soil were immediately free persons. Granville Sharpe continued to fight against the cruel institution of slavery, and as one of its staunch proponents, he changed the lives of a number of other formerly enslaved people along the way and won the struggle that brought the slave trade to an end. Dying in 1813, some twenty-one years before the 1834 abolition of slavery within the British dominions, he did not live to witness the abolition of slavery itself, but his work was largely responsible for the end of the system.
Written by: Claudette Levi-Farnum