The National Archives of Scotland Home
A-Z Help Site search
You are in: NAS> About us> News and features>Joseph Knight case
Friday 6 January 2017

Feature: Slavery, freedom or perpetual servitude? - the Joseph Knight case

In August 1807 an act was passed abolishing the slave trade in the Brirish empire. It was an important step in the abolition of slavery itself and in the supression of the slave trade. To commemmorate 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.

(Detail from the Court of Session records relating to the Joseph Knight case, National Archives of Scotland reference CS235/K/2/2)

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).

The last of these cases was the only one decided by the Court. James Montgomery (formerly 'Shanker', the property of Robert Sheddan of Morrishill in Ayrshire) died in the Edinburgh Tolbooth before his case could be decided. David Spens (previously 'Black Tom', belonging to Dr David Dalrymple in Methill in Fife) sued Dalrymple for wrongful arrest but Dalrymple died during the suit. Finally Joseph Knight was partially successful in arguing that Scots law could not support the status of slavery.

Joseph Knight's legal challenge began in 1774 in the Justices of the Peace court in Perth, where he sought the freedom to leave the employment of John Wedderburn of Bandean (or Ballendean) in Perthshire. Knight claimed that, although many years earlier he had been purchased by Wedderburn in Jamaica from a slave trader, the act of landing in Scotland freed him from perpetual servitude, as slavery was not recognised in Scotland. The Justices of the Peace found in favour of Wedderburn. However, Knight appealed to the Sheriff of Perth, who found that 'the state of slavery is not recognised by the laws of this kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof: That the regulations in Jamaica, concerning slaves, do not extend to this kingdom; and repelled the defender's claim to a perpetual service'.

Wedderburn then appealed to the Court of Session, Scotland's supreme civil court. His main argument was that slavery and perpetual servitude were different states, and that in Scots law, Knight, even though he was not recognised as a slave, was still bound to provide perpetual service in the same manner as an indentured servant or an apprenticed artisan.

Knight refers to the ruling in the Somerset case of 1772, where the Lord Chief Justice had used a writ of habeas corpus to prevent the forcible return to Jamaica of a runaway slave in England and then ruled that 'no master ever was allowed here (England) to take a slave by force to be sold abroad because he deserted from his service'.

The records relating to the Knight v Wedderburn case survive among Court of Session records in the NAS (reference CS235/K/2/2). They consist of five bundles of papers, including an extract of process by the Sheriff Depute of Perth (20 May 1774), an extract of process by the Lords of Council and Session (30 May 1774), and memorials for John Wedderburn and Joseph Knight (1775). Of these, the memorials are the most interesting. In their respective memorials each man presents his side of the story and legal arguments concerning the definition of perpetual servitude. Wedderburn blamed Knight's relationship with another servant, and her subsequent pregnancy, as the cause of a falling out between master and servant and Knight's desire to leave his service. Knight's 40-page memorial includes an account of his life (including his baptism and marriage in Scotland), evidence - partly in French - on enslavement of Africans by their chiefs as judicial punishments, and descriptions of the miseries of slavery in the colonies.

Despite Wedderburn's evidence, the Court of Session ruled that 'the dominion assumed over this Negro, under the law of Jamaica, being unjust, could not be supported in this country to any extent: That, therefore, the defender had no right to the Negro's service for any space of time, nor to send him out of the country against his consent: That the Negro was likewise protected under the act 1701, c.6. from being sent out of the country against his consent.' The judgements of the Sheriff were approved of, and the Court remitted the cause simpliciter (that is, it rejected Wedderburn's appeal without qualification).

Essentially Knight succeeded in arguing that he should be allowed to leave domestic service and provide a home for his wife and child. In doing so he gave the Court of Session the opportunity to declare that slavery was not recognised by Scots law and that runaway slaves (or 'perpetual servants') could be protected by the courts if they wished to leave domestic service or if attempts were made to forcibly remove them from Scotland and return them to slavery in the colonies.

Related pages in the NAS websites
Read about the Montgomery v Sheddan and the Spens v Dalrymple cases 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

Privacy statement | Terms of use | Using our site | Contact us | Complaints procedure | Copyright | Back to top
Page last updated: Tuesday 23 October 2007

The National Archives of Scotland, H.M. General Register House, 2 Princes Street, Edinburgh, EH1 3YY; tel +44 (0) 131 535 1314; email: