James Somerset was around eight years old when he was captured in Africa and taken to Virginia in America. Here he was purchased by the affluent Charles Stewart and taken to Boston for a life of servitude as a slave. For the next 25 years, that’s just what Somerset did; however, in 1769, Stewart went to London, taking Somerset with him. In 1771, Somerset had himself baptised, and in doing so, earned three godparents. Not long thereafter Somerset escaped, only to be hunted down and captured some two months later. So enraged was Stewart that his “slave” had deserted his service, he had him thrown onto a ship, the Ann and Mary, to be sold aboard to work on the plantations in Jamaica. So arduous, brutal and cruel was this work that it would surely have claimed Somerset’s life, something that Stewart would have known.
But here is where Somerset’s three godparents—and now advocates—stepped in. John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade applied to the Court of King’s Bench for a writ of habeas corpus: requiring an imprisoned person to be brought before a judge to determine whether their imprisonment is lawful.
The case’s precedent, in determining that Somerset was not an item of property, provided one of the greatest catalysts for the abolition of slavery movement—a movement that lends itself well for us today, as it commands us to consider that it is not what is on the outside that counts, but what lies within. A movement that says we are not separated by our differences but united by our similarities.
The trial lasted some seven months, which was groundbreaking at the time, and included many noteworthy happenings, such as when the presiding judge, Lord Mansfield prefaced his historic decision by saying “let justice be done though the heavens may fall”, and Somerset went on to be granted freedom.
It was unheard of at the time—for a black slave to be considered a person in charge of his own destiny, and I am sure at that time, people whose skin was dark must have thought things would never ever change, they would never get any better—but they did.
I’d like to now share with you now my Lord Mansfield moment; it came in 1972 when I was just ten years old. And despite my tender years, my love of animals was already legendary, well, as legendary as any ten-year-old’s could be. I was presented with a tiny turtle who had been found in some debris, washed over the banks of a swollen creek in Lower Plenty, Victoria. The turtle’s captor, also knowing of my love for naming all animals “Freddie”, had emblazoned, in stark white paint these very letters on the hapless turtle’s back. To this day I do not know where that name came from, and thankfully for the sanity of all those who come to Edgar’s Mission, it is something I have outgrown.
I was so excited to meet Freddie and think of all the cool things I could do with my new buddy, like take him to ballet class and school, take him for a ride on my pony and maybe even dress him up in doll’s clothes that I had never found a doll worthy of. I borrowed books from the library and learned all about turtles: exciting things that I still remember to this day, like that the top part of a turtle’s shell is called a carapace, and the underlying bottom part is a plastron. That their shell is made up of 60 different bones all connected together, and they have been on this earth for more than 200 million years, which means they predate mammals and birds!
But most of all I learned that turtles loved to be turtles and hang out with their kind, which was not little girls. And as I knelt down by the then not-so-swollen creek some weeks later, I granted Freddie his turtlehood, kissed his craggy turtle neck one last time and set him free.
Every now and then, to this day, I think of Freddie, trust the paint quickly washed away and that he got to do all the things that really rocked his tiny turtle world and bask in the glow that I did set him free. But sadly, my Freddie experience all those years ago was not to be my catalyst for realising that incarcerating animals for our sole amusement belongs to a backwater of our history. I collected bugs, went to circuses where exotic animals “performed”, visited aquariums where majestic sea animals had their liberty traded for our fleeting moments of wonder, and ogled at animals in barren zoo environments. Whilst I am not sure at what exact point in my life all that changed, it did change and I take great heart in knowing that the idea of doing so is daily gaining currency and that the fact we are not alone on this planet in our desire to have a life of joy, meaning and purpose is becoming more widely embraced by a greater number each day.
We have company: they are others, yet we are the same; they move in different manners, yet we are we same; they speak in languages we do not understand, yet they feel; we exploit them in many ways, yet they feel; we separate them from their families and loved ones, yet they love; we enact legislation that placates our thoughts about what we do to them, yet they love; we confine them in their millions, despite their desire to feel joy;
we herd them into vehicles and vessels and transport them miles from their home, despite their desire for joy; we incarcerate and harm them, yet they yearn to live; we end their lives at our will, yet they yearn to live—they are, in the words of Carl Safina, our “kin under the skin”; they are non-human animals and we are their flood.
I have recently returned from the America, where I attended a symposium entitled “I am not an animal—the signature cry of our species”. I found this experience incredibly insightful as it went to the core of our fractured relationship with the animal kingdom, which is that we, as a species, so desperately seek to see ourselves apart from the animal kingdom, rather than a part of the animal kingdom. Because in doing so we negate any questioning of our treatment of animals—they are different, they are not like us, they are “others”.
But this is not a story without hope, there are so many reasons for hope, each and every one of us represents the hope that things can change for the better and that we can chart a better world that will sit us on the right side of kindness. And I truly believe this will happen for no other reason than we will be fulfilling our evolutionary trajectory of becoming the best that we can possibly be, of recognising that each generation has the ability to address the wrongs perpetrated by those who went, naïvely or otherwise, before and in doing so make the flood waters recede.
Whilst I don’t know exactly what the future will look like, there are so many signs our world is changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But I am so encouraged by the many conversations we are having that are calling upon us to review how we see the other animals with whom we share the planet. Those porous borders are becoming more porous by the day; we are now seeing animals looking back at us asking, “Why, why has it taken you so long to see me?” I believe that the time has come to do as I did all those years ago on the banks of that little creek in Lower Plenty, to set them free from the both visible and invisible shackles we have placed upon them, to allow them to be exactly who they choose to be. And they will not be the only ones set free.
I’d like to end with a quote from another learned judge, this time one from America, who when handing down yet another decision to dismiss one of lawyer Steven Wise’s attempts at achieving personhood for a chimpanzee, delivered words along these lines: “that the court was not prepared to entertain the case” adding the poignant words “for now”. “For now” is our greatest reason for hope. I think the flood is about to end, and the heavens may well fall.