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The Jonathan Strong case

Under British plantation slavery, enslaved people were regarded as chattel – the property of their holders, who subjected them to their whims and fancy. The enslaved had absolutely no right to self-determination, and could be sold or repossessed at random. Many were insured so that their holders could benefit in the event of a loss.

Yet, some enslaved people fought for their freedom, and would seek help from a myriad of sources. One such person was Jonathan Strong. It is not clear whether Strong was born in Africa or the West Indies, but he was brought to Britain from Barbados by his holder, David Lisle, a lawyer and trader of Africans. It is also not clear about what inspired Lisle to brutally beat Strong before throwing him out, leaving him on the streets. He could hardly walk or see because of his injuries.

Nevertheless, Strong found his way to the home of William Sharpe, a surgeon who treated poor Londoners at his house without charge. He subsequently met William’s brother, Granville, a scholar. They gave Strong money for clothes and food, and William arranged for him to be treated at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where Strong received over four months of medical care, which the Sharpes paid for.

When Strong recovered, he found employment as an assistant with a Quaker pharmacist friend of the Sharpes in a building near William’s office.

One day while Strong was helping his employer’s wife to get into her carriage, Lisle, who was visiting London, happened by and saw him.


Lisle wasted no time in seizing Strong, claiming that he was a runaway, and had him thrown in jail. He then sold Strong to a James Kerr of Jamaica for £30.

While Strong was in jail waiting to be taken to Jamaica, he remembered the kindness meted out to him by the Sharpes, and wrote to Granville. This was in 1767.

When Granville received the letter, he could not recall the writer, so he went to the jail to see who it was. He was told no such person was around. He demanded to see all the prisoners. He recognised Strong immediately as the young African man he met at his brother’s two years prior. Granville decided to seek legal help, but could not find a lawyer to take on the matter.

Sharpe himself started to research the facts and published a pamphlet to discourage Kerr, who had paid Lisle for Strong, from litigating the matter.

Lisle challenged Granville Sharpe to a duel, but he declined, telling Lisle to see legal redress instead.

Kerr brought the matter to court, maintaining that Sharpe had deprived him of the possession of Strong, his property.

In court, Kerr’s attorney produced the sales bill that he got from Lisle when he bought Strong. Sharpe’s defence was that the laws of England did not sanction slavery, so Strong was nobody’s property. The Lord Mayor of London ruled that Strong was jailed for no legal reason. Kerr’s lawyers dropped the case.

In 1774, after Strong’s death the previous year, Kerr had to pay a fine of £200 for wasting the court’s time.

Strong remained a free man up to the time of his death at age 25, although it seems he did not fully recover from the blows inflicted by Lisle.

The Jonathan Strong case was a seminal one. It was one of the first major legal challenges to the practice of holders of enslaved people doing whatever they wanted to the enslaved in a society where the law did not sanction slavery. It thrust Granville Sharpe into the spotlight as one of the first open anti-slavery, pro-abolition agitators, especially with his involvement with another landmark case – that of James Somerset’s.