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Friday 6 January 2017

Feature: the Montgomery slavery case, 1756

In August 1807 an act was passed abolishing the slave trade in the British empire. It was an important step in the abolition of slavery and in the suppression of the slave trade. To commemorate the bicentenary of the Act, the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) has produced an online guide for anyone using Scottish archives to research aspects of slavery and the slave trade. We are also featuring three court cases which challenged the legal status of slavery in Scotland.

Part of James Montgomery's bill of sale, 1750
Between 1756 and 1778 three cases reached the Court of Session in Edinburgh whereby runaway slaves attempted to obtain their freedom. A central argument in each case was that the slave, having been bought in the colonies, had been subsequently baptised by sympathetic church ministers in Scotland. The three cases were Montgomery v Sheddan (1756), Spens v Dalrymple (1769) and Knight v Wedderburn (1778).

Records relating to all three cases survive in the NAS among the records of the Court of Session and they provide evidence about the lives of the individual slaves who featured in the cases and about attitudes to slavery in Scotland in the eighteenth century.

The first of these cases featured James (or Jamie) Montgomery, formerly 'Shanker', the slave of Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire. Jamie Montgomery had been baptised by Reverend John Witherspoon in Beith. His owner forcibly removed him to Port Glasgow and placed him on a ship bound for Virginia, but on 21 April 1756 Montgomery escaped to Edinburgh. He was apprehended following newspaper advertisements about his escape placed by Sheddan and incarcerated in the Edinburgh tolbooth. Montgomery pursued his claim for freedom at the Court of Session in Edinburgh but died before the case could be decided.

Among the records relating to the case (reference CS234/S/3/12) are petitions of Montgomery (originally styled 'James Montgomery Sheddan, prisoner in the City Guard of Edinburgh') and by Robert Sheddan and answers by each party to the other's petitions.

Sheddan also submitted the bill of sale from Joseph Hawkins, a slave trader in Fredricksburg, to Robert Sheddan of 'One Negroe boy named Jamie' in 1750. An image of the bill and a transcript are shown below.


James Montgomery's bill of sale, 1750 Transcript

Fredricksburgh March the 9 1750

Know all men by these presents that I
Joseph Hawkins of Spotselvenia County for
& in Consideration of the Sum of Fifty Six pound
twelve shillings & six pence Virginia Curr[enc]y
to me in hand pay[e]d by Robert Shedden Merch[an]t
in Fred[ricksburgh] the Recept wherof I acknowledge
Have bargain[e]d Sold & deliv[e]red & by these presents
do bargain sell & deliver unto the said Robert
Shedden One Negroe Boy Named Jamie, To have
& to hold the said Negroe unto the said Robert Shedden
his Executors administrators for Ever, And I the said
Joseph Hawkins for my self my Executors & admin[istrato]rs
shall & will warant & forever defend against all
Persons whatsum Ever In witness wherof I have
herunto sett my hand & seal this Ninth day of March
One thousand seven hundred & fifty
Signed Seal[e]d & Deliv[e]red Joseph Hawkins
Ja[mes] Hilldrop
Jo[h]n Stewart

In August 1756 Robert Sheddan requested that the case be heard quickly because he was responsible for the cost of Montgomery's subsistence in the tolbooth and because of concerns for Montgomery's health. In December 1756 Montgomery's health had deteriorated and both parties were still attempting to obtain a hearing. The Court of Session declared that the case would be heard on 4 January 1757 but by then James Montgomery had died in the Edinburgh Tolbooth.

In 1769 David Spens (previously 'Black Tom', belonging to Dr David Dalrymple in Methill in Fife) sued Dalrymple for wrongful arrest, after he had attempted to leave his service, but Dalrymple died during the suit. Finally in 1778 Joseph Knight was successful in arguing at the Court of Session that Scots law could not support the status of slavery.

Related pages in the NAS websites
Read about the Spens v Dalrymple case of 1769, the Knight v Wedderburn case of 1778, and about George Dale, a native of Africa and former slave whose life story was used as evidence by the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the African Slave Trade.

If you are researching an aspect of slavery or the slave trade in Scottish archives use our research guide to researching slavery and the Transatlantic slave trade.

Images of records and illustrations relating to the slave trade from Scottish archives and libraries can be found on the exhibition Slavery and Glasgow on the Scottish Archive Network website (at www.scan.org.uk/exhibitions).

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