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Granville Sharp (1735-1813), A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery … (1769) with an Appendix (1772)

This month, we focus on one of Granville Sharp’s earliest treatises against slavery. He was one of the youngest of the eleven children of Thomas Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, and Judith Wheler, to survive beyond infancy. When he was 15, Sharp was apprenticed to a linen draper in London, and continued to educate himself in his spare time. After a failed venture setting up his own linen business, he was employed as a clerk in the Ordinance office in 1758.

Image of Granville Sharp by George Dance, pencil, 1794, NPG 1158, © National Portrait Gallery, London, made available under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [hyperlink: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/])
Granville Sharp by George Dance, pencil, 1794, NPG 1158, © National Portrait Gallery, London, made available under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 [hyperlink: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/])

It was an encounter in 1765 with Jonathan Strong, a teenage slave owned by the barrister David Lisle, which sparked Sharp’s outrage at the treatment of fellow human beings. Strong had been seriously injured by Lisle and was waiting to receive treatment from Sharp’s older brother William, a well-known surgeon, when Sharp happened to be visiting. Two years later, Lisle had Strong arrested as a run-away and had sold him to a slave trader. Sharp was contacted by the imprisoned young man and took up his case, inspiring him to research the law on British civil liberties and the legality of slavery.

In 1769, this resulted in Sharp’s first work on the inhumanity of slavery in A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery. In it, he set out his thoughts on the legal status of slavery in Britain, using legal and historical documents to condemn the practice. In 1772, Sharp wrote an Appendix to the Representation in response to the Somerset case, in which he argued that any slave setting foot in England should become a free person.

Image of the title page to Granville Sharp’s A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery (Ref: Bamburgh O.5.17)
Title page to Granville Sharp’s A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery (Ref: Bamburgh O.5.17)

Sharp became a vocal antislavery campaigner and was one of the founder members of the Society for the abolition of the slave trade in 1787, although his view was that abolishing the slave trade without abolishing slavery did not go far enough. He was a strong supporter of William Wilberforce’s attempts in Parliament to legalise the abolition of the slave trade from 1788 onwards. He also worked with Wilberforce towards the establishment of a colony of freed slaves in Sierra Leone in 1786. Sharp lived to see the end of the slave trade in 1807; slavery was officially abolished in Britain in 1833 under the Slavery Abolition Act.

Image of the inscription and Chippendale bookplate belonging to Thomas Sharp (1725-1772), Curate of Bamburgh and older brother of the author Granville Sharp.
Inscription and Chippendale bookplate belonging to Thomas Sharp (1725-1772), Curate of Bamburgh and older brother of the author Granville Sharp.

This copy of A representation of the injustice and dangerous tendency of tolerating slavery is bound with the Appendix and was a gift from Granville Sharp to his older brother Thomas in 1772, possibly shortly before the latter’s death in November of that year. Thomas had been Curate of Bamburgh since 1757, which is noted in the lavish Chippendale bookplate also carrying the Sharp family arms (granted to John Sharp, shortly before being appointed Archbishop of York in 1691). The work is bound in a characteristic pink paper over boards with gilt tooling and yellow-stained leaf edges, which is associated with Granville Sharp.

Image of the upper cover of Granville Sharp’s presentation copy of his first work against slavery.
Upper cover of Granville Sharp’s presentation copy of his first work against slavery.

Curious to know more about the Sharps and the Bamburgh Library? You can read more on our website.

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