A look at some of the history and holidays on December 3
The feast of St. Francis Xavier, one of history’s most successful Catholic missionaries and, in 1534, one of the co-founders of the Jesuit Order. Before joining the clergy, Xavier was a student at the Univ. of Paris. He roomed with the primary founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, who convinced him to take up life in the Church, famously asking of Xavier, “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” As a Jesuit missionary, Xavier spent most of his adult life evangelizing in India, Malaysia and Japan, putting into practice his belief that a missionary must adapt to the customs and language of the people he evangelizes. Moreover, he advocated growing the Church in areas he evangelized by developing an educated native clergy. He is the patron saint of missionaries.
1771: Somerset’s Case
This was the first major landmark legal victory in the 18th century abolition movement to end chattel slavery.
Charles Stewart purchased a black man, James Somerset, as a slave while he was in Boston. When Stewart returned to England, Somerset escaped. Somerset was taken in by abolitionists and converted to Christianity before Stewart found him. Stewart found Somerset and imprisoned him aboard a ship that would soon be bound for Jamaica. Stewart instructed the ship’s captain to sell Somerset there as a slave. Three people, in their capacity as Somerset’s godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England, and with the financial backing of the abolitionist, Granville Sharp, made an application on this date in 1771 before the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus, meaning that the ship’s captain had to bring Somerset before the Court and determine whether Somerset was lawfully a slave.
Granville Sharp insured that the case became a cause celebre in the press of the day. Lord Mansfield, the justice hearing the case, well understood the implications for Britain’s colonial holdings should he declare that slavery was unlawful. Not wanting to have to issue a judgment, he strongly recommended that the parties come to an agreement, such as buying the freedom of Somerset. If not, he famously said, then fīat jūstitia ruat cælumet — let justice be done though the heavens fall.
No settlement was reached, and after three hearings over a period of six months, Lord Mansfield issued a judgment. Chattel slavery can only exist in any geographical place if explicitly sanctioned by the controlling laws. Parliament had passed no law in Britain that explicitly give one man property rights in another, and the Judge would not assume them from the common law. Thus Stewart had no right to recapture Somerset and forcibly deport him to be sold. Mansfield ordered that Somerset be set free.
Mansfield wrote his holding as narrowly as possible, even limiting it only to the mainland of Britain. Still, it was a first, very public judicial blow against slavery and in support of the nascent abolitionist movement morally opposed to black chattel slavery on both sides of the pond.