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Joseph Knight, A Slave - Fact and Fiction

Updated: Jul 29, 2023

A young boy, whose own name has never been determined, was transported by slave traders from Guinea on the west coast of Africa to Jamaica in 1766. He was about 13 years old and was bought at the scramble by John Wedderburn, to be a house servant. Wedderburn named him Joseph Knight, after the captain of the ship.


The slave would have been added to the list of commodities associated with the plantation along with the bags of sugar and barrels of rum. Wedderburn provided Joseph with an education and decided to bring him back with him to Scotland on his final return in 1769. That journey, together with his education, were to have far reaching consequences thanks to a series of legal cases that would set an important precedent about slavery in Scotland.


Portrait of Joseph Knight by Tilda Williams-Kelly, acrylic, oil and spray paint on canvas, 2021 (copyright the artist)

The facts that are known about Joseph are from the records held in the National Records of Scotland CS235/K/2/2, which contain evidence from the courts from 1773 to 1775.


Shortly after arriving at Wedderburn’s newly acquired home at Ballindean House near Inchture (about 10 miles from Dundee), Joseph was baptised in the Church of Scotland. There doesn’t seem to be any parish record of this event, but there were probably no records for slaves relating to their life events as they were viewed as chattels.


At this point Wedderburn verbally promised to give Joseph his freedom after a period of seven years had passed. Twelve months later he retracted his promise: “…he would not free him as he would starve as nobody would employ him, but that he would give him his freedom in Jamaica and a house and some ground where he might live comfortably all the days of his lifetime.”


The prospect of a return to Jamaica could be regarded as a death sentence for Joseph, as it would have been for many slaves who were returned as a punishment. Even if he survived the journey, what guarantee could Wedderburn offer that his freedom and property would be respected? And even if this was a benevolent act, it was not returning him to his homeland, but to a land of captivity.


The action that propelled Joseph toward a court case was in 1772 when Wedderburn discovered the secret affair Joseph was having with Annie Thomson, one of the servants. The affair could no longer be hidden once Annie became pregnant. Wedderburn dismissed her from his service but provided money for her laying in and rent for a house in Dundee. Wedderburn described Annie as “one of the Fair Sex not very famous for her virtues.” He felt that Joseph was under her “dominion”. When the baby died, Wedderburn assumed that Joseph would abandon Annie. Instead, he married her and asked for a house near Ballindean where they might live together. Joseph had read about the Somersett case of 1771-1772 in England and believed he had a right to leave Wedderburn’s service without giving notice in order to live with his wife in Dundee. Wedderburn suspecting this intention, applied to the Justices of the Peace to have him arrested, maintaining that he was entitled to Knight’s personal service for life.


Unsurprisingly, the three Justices agreed with Wedderburn. They were, afterall, his acquaintances and he was related by marriage to two of them. They all had connections to plantations in Jamaica. Only a few years earlier in 1768 one of them, George Oliphant Kinloch, had placed an advert in the Edinburgh Advertiser for the return of his runaway slave threatening punishment to anyone who harboured him.


Advert placed by George Oliphant Kinloch in the Edinburgh Advertiser, 1768

Joseph, however, challenged the Justices’ decision and although it was dismissed at first, it was eventually heard in 1774 by the Sheriff Depute, John Swinton of Swinton, who had a more sympathetic view about the rights of slaves.


Wedderburn’s lawyers presented a number of arguments in support of slavery based on the protection of the slave owner’s wealth and their right to own slaves:


“…if we were to discontinue that practice, then we should not only lose all the wealth and support which we derive from these possessions but must be reduced to purchase our sugars and the productions of these countrys from other nations who should continue the present practice. For being accustomed to these commodities we could not now give them up and although they might once be considered only as luxurys, they are certainly now become the necessarys of life. That without the use of negro slaves – those colonies must be abandoned is evident without any reasoning.”


“The bodys and the Constitutions of Europeans particularly the Natives of the Northern parts such as Britain are perfectly incapable of labour in the climate where sugar is produced. A negro if not overworked can toil under the influence of a West India sun without impairing his health or shortening his life, whereas a native of this country cannot support labour in the same proportion for a month without certain destruction.”


Swinton made his decision, finding “that the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof, and finds that the regulations in Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom and repels the master’s claim for perpetual service.”


Of course, Wedderburn then appealed and the case was taken to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, with the first arguments heard in 1775.This was certainly a high-profile case, with eminent lawyers on both sides. Joseph’s lawyers had the support of James Boswell, whose father Lord Auchinleck was one of the judges in the case. Boswell in turn sought the help of his celebrated travelling companion Samuel Johnson. At Boswell’s request, Johnson wrote A Brief to Free a Slave:


“If we should admit, what perhaps may with more reason be denied, that there are certain relations between man and man which may make slavery necessary and just, yet it can never be proved that he who is now suing for his freedom ever stood in any of those relations. He is certainly subject by no law, but that of violence, to his present master; who pretends no claim to his obedience, but that he bought him from a merchant of slaves, whose right to sell him was never examined…


“No man is the property of another: The defendant is, therefore, by nature free: The rights of nature must be some way forfeited before they can be justly taken away: That the defendant has by any act forfeited the rights of nature we require to be proved; andif no such proof of forfeiture can be given, we doubt not but the justice of the court will declare him free.”


Johnson also offered to provide financial aid for the defence. Johnson himself had a former slave as his valet, but Francis Barber was regarded as a surrogate son, and was also a residual heir to Johnson’s estate receiving a small annual income for the rest of his life.


It took until 15 January 1778 (4 years and 3 months since he was first arrested), for the Court of Session to find in Joseph Knight’s favour and have his freedom granted. Lord Auchinleck stated: "Is a man a slave because he is black? No. He is our brother; and he is a man, although not our colour; he is in a land of liberty, with his wife and child: let him remain there.” During all that time Knight had to continue to serve Wedderburn.


The press reported the outcome with enthusiasm, the Caledonian Mercury concluding: “Upon no occasion… did our Bench display more learning and ability, than upon this occasion, when the rights of humanity were weighed in the great scales of justice. And it must give a very high satisfaction to the inhabitants of this part of the United Kingdom [sic], that the freedom of negroes has received its first general determination in the Supreme Civil Court of Scotland.”


However, this is where the facts end. There is no record of what happened to Joseph, his wife or the child Lord Auchinleckreferred to. Under the circumstances, he was unlikely to have received a good reference, if any, from Wedderburn. The latter’s influence would probably have precluded any employment as a servant amongst the gentry. It was stated in the court documents from 1774 that "his wife lives in Dundee with whom he had intended to have resided and to have applied himself to some Industry as a Mean for his own and his family’s subsistence.” Could he have found work in Dundee? If not, would any of the rich abolitionists who supported his case have helped or employed him, or was his case just an intellectual exercise?


As for Wedderburn, following the outcome he became a fierce advocate for the rights of slaveholders. No doubt he was a member of The London Society of West India Planters and Merchants, all of whom had a vested interest in the continuation of slavery to protect their wealth.


Events after the court case


1791:

James Boswell wrote the poem, No Abolition of Slavery: or the Universal Empire of Love, dedicated to the West India Planters and Merchants. The poem is not about Joseph Knight, but it shows that his views had now become pro-slavery and the poem supports the contemporary belief that slaves enjoy their captivity:


Finish'd the bus'ness of the day,

No human beings are more gay:

Of food, clothes, cleanly lodging sure,

Each has his property secure;

Their wives and children are protected,

In sickness they are not neglected;

And when old age brings a release,

Their grateful days they end in peace.


1898:

The publication of The Wedderburn Book, A History of the Wedderburns by Alexander Wedderburn. The book contains minimal reference to the court case, simply noting that Knight “successfully gained his freedom as incident to his presence in this free country.” It also mentions the apt quotation from Virgil’s Eclogue II used by Joseph’s lawyers: “Quamvisilleniger, quamvistucandensisesse” [though he was dark, and you are fair]. This quotation was also used by Lord Mansfield in the Somersett case that Knight read about.


Cover of James Robertson’s novel Joseph Knight

2003:

James Robertson’s historical novel, Joseph Knight, was published and went on to win The Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. The story is based on the concept that Wedderburn, as an elderly man, wants to re-establish contact with Joseph Knight and so hires an investigator to find him. This allows Robertson to look not only at the details that are known about Knight, but also to speculate on what may have transpired to Joseph and his family after his Court of Session success. He suggests that Wedderburn did have affection for Joseph and regretted his treatment of him.


By deciding that Knight becomes a miner in Fife after the trial, Robertson very cleverly draws our attention to the existence of a form of slavery in Scotland which is often overlooked. In 1775 the Colliers and Salters Act was passed which meant that new entrants to mining were no longer subject to bondage. Existing colliers and salters had to buy their freedom (similar to manumission in the plantations and as difficult). Would Joseph have become a collier when it was so closely linked to slavery and some of the miners were still in bondage for life, or was life as a miner one of the few options open to Joseph who might have been unable to get work anywhere else?


2018:

May Sumbwanyambe’s play The Trial of Joseph Knight is broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It dramatises the interactions between the protagonists in Joseph’s world at Ballindean up to John Swinton’s decision to give him his freedom. By providing a dialogue between the characters, they are brought to life in a way that is different to the retelling of the facts.


Sumbwanyambe shows the frictions that inevitably occur as each character struggles with the conflicts of conscience that Knight’s desire for freedom causes. The play suggests that the harsh decisions that Wedderburn makes are at times tempered by his sympathy for Joseph, stemming from their shared experiences of life in Jamaica; experiences and horrors that others cannot conceive of. Ultimately, he is the master and must act accordingly.


Cover of the published version of May Sumbwanyambe’s play Enough of Him, starring Omar Austin as Joseph Knight

2020:

Sumbwanyambe planned to produce a version of his play for the theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Enough of Him was due to be performed at Pitlochry Festival Theatre but had to be postponed due to the COVID lockdown. The theatre did, however, release a short film version of it showing the painful memories of the sea journey to Jamaica. The play finally went on tour around Scotland in 2022.


Conclusion


It is easy enough to trace the history of the wealthy families who owned plantations and slaves. Many have biographies written about them and their lives are documented in official records and written on their gravestones. Not so the people they enslaved. It is unlikely that they will be found in official documents or have any markers to identify their graves.


If Joseph Knight did have any descendants, they would surely have been proud of the slave who became a vital part of Scottish history.



JOSEPH KNIGHT - A TIMELINE

DATE

AGE

EVENT

c.1753

0

BIRTH IN GUINEA, WEST AFRICA

1766

13

ARRIVAL IN JAMAICA, SOLD TO JOHN WEDDERBURN

1769

16

ARRIVAL IN SCOTLAND

1772

19

CHILD BORN AND DIED, ANN THOMSON DISMISSED

9 MAR 1773

20

MARRIAGE TO ANN THOMSON

13 NOV 1773

20

WARRANT FOR ARREST

15 NOV 1773

20

PERTH JUSTICES OF THE PEACE FIND IN FAVOUR OF WEDDERBURN

22 DEC 1773

20

KNIGHT ATTEMPTS TO HAVE RULING OVERTURNED

5 JAN 1774

21

KNIGHT’S CASE DISMISSED, BUT HE CHALLENGES THE DECISION

20 MAY 1774

21

PERTH SHERIFF DEPUTE JOHN SWINTON OF SWINTON DECLARES SLAVERY IS NOT RECOGNISED IN SCOTLAND

MAY 1774

21

WEDDERBURN ASKS FOR CASE TO BE REFERRED TO EDINBURGH COURT OF SESSION

7 FEB 1775

22

EDINBURGH COURT OF SESSION: ARGUMENTS HEARD BY LORD KENNEY

7 MAR 1775

22

DECISION MADE TO TAKE THE CASE BEFORE THE WHOLE COURT

FEB 1776

23

CASE ARGUED OVER SEVERAL DAYS IN FEBRUARY, DECISION FOR MORE TIME

25 JUN 1776

23

JAMES BOSWELL WRITES TO SAMUEL JOHNSON ASKING FOR HIS HELP

6 JUL 1776

23

JOHNSON REPLIES AND ALSO OFFERS FINANCIAL HELP

15 JUL 1777

24

BOSWELL SENDS JOHNSON A COPY OF THE OPPPOSING CASE

SEPT 1777

24

BOSWELL ASKS JOHNSON TO DICTATE AN ARGUMENT IN SUPPORT OF THE CASE. JOHNSON PROVIDES ‘A BRIEF TO FREE A SLAVE’

15 JAN 1778

25

COURT FINDS IN FAVOUR OF KNIGHT

1803

SIR JOHN WEDDERBURN DIES


Written by Laura Mowbray


Sources:

The National Records of Scotland CS235/K/2/2

D Dabybeen, J Groves and C Jones (eds), The Oxford Companion to Black British History, Oxford University Press, 2007

James Robertson, Joseph Knight, 4th estate, 2003

Samuel Johnson, A Brief to Free a Slave,1777

James Boswell, No Abolition of Slavery: or the Universal Empire of Love,1791

Alexander Wedderburn, The Wedderburn Book, 1898

Legacies of British Slavery website, www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs

Wikipedia

www.runaways.gla.ac.uk/database/

www.nationaltheatrescotland.com/profile/may-sumbwanyambe


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