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Granville Sharp

Granville Sharp (10 November 1735 - 6 July 1813) was one of the first British campaigners for the abolition of the slave trade. He also involved himself in trying to correct other social injustices. Sharp formulated the plan to settle blacks in Sierra Leone, and founded the St. George's Bay Company, a forerunner of the Sierra Leone Company. His efforts led to both the founding of the Province of Freedom, and later on Freetown, Sierra Leone, and so he is considered one of the founding fathers of Sierra Leone. He was also a biblical scholar and classicist, and a talented musician.


Granville Sharp was the son of Thomas Sharp (1693-1758), Archdeacon of Northumberland, prolific theological writer and biographer of his father, John Sharp, Archbishop of York. Sharp was born at Durham in 1735. He had eight older brothers and five younger sisters. Five of his brothers survived their infancy and by the time Sharp had reached his mid-teens the family funds set aside for their education had been all but depleted, so Sharp was educated at Durham School but mainly at home.[1]

He was apprenticed to a London linen-draper at the age of fifteen. Sharp loved to argue and debate, and his keen intellect found little outlet in the mundane work in which he was involved. However, one of his fellow-apprentices was a Socinian (a Christian sect that denied the divinity of Christ and took its reasoning from the original Greek of the New Testament), and in order better to argue, Sharp taught himself Greek. Another fellow apprentice was Jewish, and so Sharp learned Hebrew in order to be able to discuss theological matters with his co-worker. Sharp also conducted genealogical research for one of his masters, Henry Willoughby, who had a claim to the barony of Willoughby de Parham, and it was through Sharp's work that Willoughby was able to take his place in the House of Lords.

Sharp's apprenticeship ended in 1757, and both his parents died a year later. That same year he accepted a position as Clerk in the Ordnance Office at the Tower of London. This civil service position allowed him plenty of free time to pursue his scholarly and intellectual pursuits.[1]

The Sharp Family, by Johann Zoffany, 1779-81, National Portrait Gallery, London. The family musical ensemble are pictured on their barge, Apollo, with All Saints Church, Fulham in the background. Granville Sharp is the male figure in the centre.

Sharp had a keen musical interest. Four of his siblings - William, later to become surgeon to George III, James, Elizabeth and Judith - had also come to London, and they met every day. They all played musical instruments as a family orchestra, giving concerts at William's house in Mincing Lane and later in the family sailing barge, Apollo, which was moored at the Bishop of London's steps in Fulham, near William's country home, Fulham House.[2] The fortnightly water-borne concerts took place from 1775-1783, the year his brother James died. Sharp had an excellent bass voice, described by George III as "the best in Britain", and he played the clarinet, oboe, flageolet, kettle drums, harp and a double-flute which he had made himself. He often signed his name in notes to friends as G#.[1]

Sharp died at Fulham House on 6 July 1813, and a memorial of him was erected in Westminster Abbey. He lived in Fulham, London, and was buried in the churchyard of All Saints Church, Fulham. The vicar would not allow a funeral sermon to be preached in the church because Sharp had been involved with the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was Nonconformist.[1]


Sharp is best known for his untiring efforts for the abolition of slavery, although he was involved in many other causes, fired by a dislike of any social or legal injustice.

Sharp's first involvement: Jonathan Strong

Sharp's brother William held a regular surgery for the local poor at his surgery at Mincing Lane, and one day in 1765 when Sharp was visiting, he met Jonathan Strong. Strong was a young black slave from Barbados who had been so badly beaten by his master, David Lisle, a lawyer, that he had been cast out into the street as useless. Sharp and his brother tended to his injuries and had him admitted to Barts Hospital, where his injuries were so bad they necessitated a four month stay. The Sharps paid for his treatment and when he was fit enough, found him employment with a Quaker apothecary friend of theirs. In 1767, Lisle saw Strong in the street and had him kidnapped and sold to a planter called James Kerr for £30. Strong was able to get word to Sharp, and in a court attended by the Lord Mayor and the Cotroner of London, Lisle and Kerr were denied possession of Strong. They instituted a court action against Sharp claiming £200 damages for taking their property, and Lisle challenged Sharp to a duel - Sharp told Lisle that he could expect satisfaction from the law.

Sharp consulted lawyers and was horrified to find that as the law stood it favoured the master's rights to his slaves as property, that a slave remained in law the chattel of his master even on English soil. Sharp said "he could not believe the law of England was really so injurious to natural rights." He spent the next two years in intensive study of English law, especially where it applied to the liberty of the individual.

Lisle disappeared from the records early, but Kerr persisted with his suit through eight legal terms before it was dismissed and Kerr was ordered to pay substantial damages for wasting the court's time. Jonathan Strong was free, although the law had not been changed, but he only lived for five years as a free man, dying at 25 as a direct result of the severe beating he had received from Lisle.[1]

Increasing involvement

William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield.

The Strong case made a name for Sharp as the Defender of the Negro and he was approached by two more slaves, although in both cases (Hylas v Newton and R v Stapylton) the results were unsatisfactory, and it became plain that the judiciary - and Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice of the King's Bench (the leading judge of the day) in particular - was trying very hard not to decide the issue. By this time, Great Britain was by far the largest trafficker in slaves, transporting more Africans acorss the Atlantic than all other nations put together, and the slave trade and slave labour were important to the British economy.

In 1769 Sharp published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery ..., the first tract in England attacking slavery.[1]

James Somersett

On 13 January 1772, Sharp was visited and asked for help by James Somersett, a slave from Virginia in America, who had come to England with his master Charles Stuart in 1769 and had run away in October 1771. After evading slave hunters employed by Stuart for 56 days, Somersett had been caught and put in the slave ship Ann and Mary, to be taken to Jamaica and sold. Three Londoners had applied to Lord Mansfield for a writ of habeas corpus, which had been granted, with Somersett having to appear at a hearing on 24 January 1772. Members of the public responded to Somersett's plight by sending money to pay for his lawyers (who in the event all gave their services pro bono), while Stuart's costs were met by the West Indian planters and merchants.

Calling on his now-formidable knowledge of the law regarding individual liberty, Sharp briefed Somersett's lawyers. Mansfield's prevarications stretched the case over six hearings from January to May, and he finally delivered his judgment on 22 June 1772. It was a clear victory for Somersett, Sharp and the lawyers who acted for Somersett: Mansfield had acknowledge that English law did not allow slavery, and only a new Act of Parliament ("positive law") could bring it into legality. However, the verdict in the case is often misunderstood to mean the end of slavery in England. It was no such thing: it only dealt with the question of the forcible sending of someone overseas into bondage, that a slave becomes free the moment he sets foot on English territory. It was one of the most significant milestones in the campaign to abolish slavery throughout the world, more for its effect than for its actual legal weight.[1]

The Zong

The murder of slaves on the ship Zong in 1781.

In 1781 the captain of a slave ship, the Zong decided to throw 122 sick slaves over board, with another ten throwing themselves over board in despair. He reasoned that as the slaves were cargo, the ship's owners would be entitled to the £30 a head compensation for their loss at sea: were he to land and the slaves to die there, no compensation would be forthcoming.[1]

The ship's owners filed their insurance claim, but the insurers disputed it. In this first case the court found for the captain and the owners. The insurers appealed. It is at this point that Sharp enters the story. He was visited on 19 March 1783 by Olaudah Equiano, a famous freed slave and later to be the author of a successful autobiography, and told of the horrific events aboard the Zong. Sharp immediately became involved in the court case, facing his old adversary over slave trade matters, Lord Mansfield. Mansfield notoriously declared that "the case was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard" but ruled that the ship-owners could not claim insurance on the slaves because the lack of sufficient water demonstrated that the cargo had been badly managed.

No officers or crew were charged or prosecuted for the deliberate killing of 132 slaves. Indeed, the Solicitor General, John Lee, declared that a master could drown slaves without "a surmise of impropriety". Sharp's attempts to mount a prosecution for murder never got off the ground.[1]

The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Sharp was not completely alone at the beginning of the struggle: the Quakers, especially in America, were committed abolitionists. Sharp had a long and fruitful correspondence with Anthony Benezet, a Quaker abolitionist in Pennsylvania. However, the Quakers were a marginal group in England, and were debarred from standing for Parliament, and they had no doubt as to who should be the chairman of the new society they were founding, The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. On 22 May 1787, at the inaugural meeting of the Committee - nine Quakers and three Anglicans (who strengthened the committee's likelihood of influencing Parliament) - Sharp's position was unanimously agreed. In the 20 years of the society's existence, during which Sharp was ever-present at Committee meetings, such was Sharp's modesty that he would never take the chair, always contriving to arrive just after the meeting had started to avoid any chance of having to take the meeting. While the committee felt it sensible to concentrate on the slave trade, Sharp felt strongly that the target should be slavery itself. On this he was out-voted, but he worked tirelessly for the Society nevertheless.[1]


When Sharp heard that the Act of Abolition had at last been passed by both Houses of Parliament and given Royal Assent on 25 March, 1807, he fell to his knees and offered a prayer of thanksgiving. He was now 71, and had outlived almost all of the allies and opponents of his early campaigns. He was regarded as the grand old man of the abolition struggle, and although a driving force in its early days, his place had later been taken by others such as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect.[1]

The Province of Freedom

View from Granville Town looking north to Bullom Shore from Voyages to the River Sierra Leone by John Matthews, 1788

Although no reliable figures exist, it is thought that in the early 1780s there were around 15,000 black people in Britain, most of them without employment. Ideas were formulated for a settlement in Africa where they could return "home". Henry Smeathman, a plant collector who had visited Sierra Leone, propounded to the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor that the country would be an excellent location. Worried black people came to see Sharp, concerned that they might be re-enslaved in such a place.

Sharp took to the idea with alacrity: he saw it as a perfect opportunity to create a new model society from scratch. He drew up plans and regulations, and persuaded the Treasury to finance the ships and pay £12 a head to each embarking settler. He named the new, egalitarian, peaceful Christian society-to-be "The Province of Freedom".

The utopian ideal quickly went sour. Fire broke out before the ships had left London; 411 sailed for Africa, including some 60 white prostitutes who had been married off to the male settlers hastily (and certainly without Sharp's knowledge). The settlers arrived in May 1787, at the onset of the five month rainy season, and a settlement of sorts was built, named Granville Town. The commander of the naval escort that had brought the settlers concluded that they were unfit for the complex challenge of founding a new settlement in a hostile environment. One of the settlers whom Granville had rescued from a slave ship left the settlement to work in the slave trade, much to Sharp's despair. By the end of 1788 Sharp had poured £1,735 18s 8d of his own money into the settlement. In 1789 Granville Town was burned to the ground by a disgruntled local chief.[1]

Through The Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, in 1790 Granville came into contact with Thomas Peters, a former American slave who fought with the British during revolution in return for freedom. Sharp was instrumental in helping Peters to establish Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sharp is considered to be one of the founders of Sierra Leone alongside Thomas Peters and the Clarkson brothers (Thomas Clarkson and John Clarkson).

Other activism

A white glass medallion of Granville Sharp by Catherine Andras, made on 2 April 1809.

Sharp ardently sympathized with the revolt of the American colonists. He believed in peace in America, but he also believed they were entitled to "Equitable Representation", an idea repeated in the famous phrase "No Taxation without Representation". When he realised his job in the Ordnance Office meant sending equipment to British forces fighting the colonists, he took leave of absence. As the war continued, he wrote to his employers "I cannot return to my ordnance duty whilst a bloody war is carried on, unjustly, against my fellow-subjects." Eventually in 1776 he resigned, never to have paid employment again and supported willingly by his brothers, who were happy to see him dedicate his time to his various causes.[1]

Sharp also advocated parliamentary reform and the legislative independence of Ireland, and agitated against the impressment of sailors for the Navy. It was through his efforts that bishops for the United States of America were consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1787. He also argued for the reform of Parliament based on Magna Carta and to back this up he devised the doctrine of accumulative authority. This doctrine stated that because almost innumerable parliaments had approved Magna Carta it would take the same number of Parliaments to repeal it. Like many others, Sharp accepted the supremacy of Parliament as an institution, but did not believe that this power was without restraint, and thought that Parliament could not repeal Magna Carta.

Sharp was also one of the founders of the British and Foreign Bible Society and of the Society for the Conversion of the Jews.

Classical grammarian

One of Granville's letters written in 1778 (published in 1798), propounded what has come to be known as The Granville Sharp Rule (in actuality only the first of six principles involving the article that Sharp articulated):

“When the copulative kai connects two nouns of the same case, if the article ho, or any of its cases, precedes the first of the said nouns or participles, and is not repeated before the second noun or participle, the latter always relates to the same person that is expressed or described by the first noun or participle ...”[3]

This rule, if true, has a profound bearing on Unitarian doctrine, which led to a ‘celebrated controversy’, in which many leading divines took part, including Christopher Wordsworth.

Daniel B. Wallace says about Sharp:

“His strong belief in Christ’s deity led him to study the Scriptures in the original in order to defend more ably that precious truth ... As he studied the Scriptures in the original, he noticed a certain pattern, namely, when the construction article-noun-και-noun involved personal nouns which were singular and not proper names, they always referred to the same person. He noticed further that this rule applied in several texts to the deity of Jesus Christ.”[4]

But Wallace claims that this rule is often too broadly applied. “Sharp’s rule Number 1” does not always work with plural forms of personal titles. Instead, a phrase that follows the form article-noun-“and”-noun, when the nouns involved are plurals, can involve two entirely distinct groups, two overlapping groups, two groups of which is one a subset of the other, or two identical groups.[5] In other words, the rule is of very specific and limited application.

Of Granville Sharp's most successful critic, Calvin Winstanley, Wallace says:

"Winstanley conceded 'There are, you say, no exceptions, in the New Testament, to your rule; that is, I suppose, unless these particular texts [i.e. the ones Sharp used to adduce Christ's deity] be such ... it is nothing surprising to find all these particular texts in question appearing as the exceptions to your rule, and the sole exceptions ... in the New Testament'[6] - an obvious concession that he could find no exceptions save for the ones he supposed exist in the christologically pregnant texts."[7]

What Wallace neglects by use of ellipses (...) is the flow of Winstanley's argument as well as the character of his theology.[8] Winstanley's quote argued that one could not apply Sharp's rule to the possible exceptions unless it could be shown that extra-biblical literature also followed Sharp's rule. Through multiple examples Winstanley showed that in classical Greek and in patristic Greek - all the literature surrounding the New Testament, the rule simply did not apply consistently. Wallace's quote comes from the end of Winstanley's argument in which he clearly is not conceding the point. To complete Winstanley's argument:

"There are, you say, no exceptions, in the New Testament, to your rule; that is, I suppose, unless these particular texts be such; which you think utterly improbable. You would argue, then, that if these texts were exceptions, there would be more. I do not perceive any great weight in this hypothetical reasoning. But, however plausible it may appear, the reply is at hand. There are no other words so likely to yield exceptions; because there are no other words, between which the insertion of the copulative, would effect so remarkable a deviation from the established form of constructing them to express one person; and of course, would so pointedly suggest a difference of signification."[9]

Winstanley was a trinitarian Christian, but cautioned that a rule that held true only in the New Testament in all but the disputed cases was too flimsy a ground on which to try to prove the divinity of Christ to the Socinians (Unitarians). Instead he said, "[I think] there are much more cogent arguments in reserve, when [Sharp's] rule of interpretation shall be abandoned."[10] His biggest criticisms of Sharp's rule rest in the fact that 1) the early church fathers do not follow it and 2) the early church father's never invoked this rule to prove the divinity of Christ (though it would have been an obvious tool against such heresy). He concludes, "Hence it may be presumed that the doctrine then rested on other grounds."[11]

While it is affirmed by Wallace and other biblical scholars that there is more and more confirmation of this rule, there are trinitarian scholars who continue to believe Winstanley's refutation sufficient.


Notable publications are in bold.

  • 1765 An Answer to the Rev. Dr. Kennicot's Charge of Corruptions in the Hebrew Texts of Ezra and Nehemiah
  • 1767 A Short Introduction to Vocal Musick
  • 1767 On the Pronunciation of the English Tongue
  • 1768 Remarks on Several Important Prophecies ...
  • 1769 A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery ..., the first tract in England attacking slavery
  • 1771 An Appendix to the Representation, reinforcing his case against slavery
  • 1771 Remarks Concerning Encroachments on the River Thames
  • 1773 Remarks ... against Duelling
  • 1774 A Declaration of the People's Natural Right to a Share in the Legislature, in support of the American colonists
  • 1775 A Declaration of the People's Natural Right ..., in support of both Americans and Irish
  • 1776 The Law of Retribution
  • 1776 The Just Limitation of Slavery in the Laws of God
  • 1776 The Laws of Passive Obedience
  • 1776 The Laws of Liberty
  • 1777 preface to General James Oglethorpe's The Sailor's Advocate, an attack on press gangs
  • 1777 The Laws of Nature
  • 1777 The Case of Saul
  • 1778 An Address to the People of England ... stating the Illegality of impressing Seamen
  • 1779 The Doctrine of 'Nullum Tempus occurrit Regi' Explained ...
  • 1780 seven tracts on The Legal Means of Political Reformation
  • 1781 seven tracts on Free Militia
  • 1784 Congragational Courts and the ancient English Constitution of Frankpledge
  • 1784 A Tract on the Election of Bishops
  • 1786 An English Alphabet for the Use of Foreigners
  • 1786 Regulations for a New Settlement of Sierra Leone
  • 1790 Free English Territory in Africa
  • 1790 Plan of a Public Charity
  • 1791 A Letter ... (on) the State of the London Workhouse
  • 1792 Causes des Calamités publiques qui régnent à présent par toute l'Étendue de L'Empire Romain
  • 1792 A Collection of Political Papers, with Remarks on the Accomplishment of Prophecies
  • 1793 A Letter to a Gentleman in Maryland respecting the extreme Wickedness of tolerating the Slave Trade ...
  • 1794 A General plan for laying out Towns and Townships in new-acquired Lands ...
  • 1798 Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek Text of the New Testament, Containing Many New Proofs of the Divinity of Christ, from Passages Which Are Wrongly Translated in the Common English Version, which contains the grammatical principle still known as "Sharp's Rule"
  • 1801 The Child's First Book improved, with a Preface addressed to Mothers and Teachers
  • 1801 An Answer to an anonymous Letter on Pre-Destination and Free-will, with a Postscript on Eternal Punishments
  • 1801 Extract of a Letter on Land-Carriages, Roads, and profitable Labour of Oxen
  • 1804 three tracts on The Syntax and Pronunciation of the Hebrew Tongue
  • 1805 An Inquiry whether the Description of Babylon ... agrees perfectly with Rome, as a City etc ...
  • 1805 A Letter ... respecting the proposed Catholic Emancipation
  • 1805 Serious Reflections on the Slave Trade and Slavery Addressed to the Peers of Great Britain
  • 1806 A Dissertation on the supreme Divine Dignity of the Messiah
  • 1806 Remarks on the two last Petitions in the Lord's Prayer ...
  • 1807 The System of Colonial Law compared with the eternal Laws of God, and with the Indispensable Principles of the British Constitution
  • 1807 A Letter in Answer to some of the leading Principles and Doctrines of the People called Quakers
  • 1807 The Case of Saul, to which is added a short tract wherein the Influence of Demons is further illustrated
  • 1808 Jerusalem ... respecting the Etymology of that Word
  • 1810 Melchisedec; or an Answer to a Question respecting the Reality of Melchisedec's Existence, as King of Salem and priest of the Most High God
  • 1811 Modus Decimandi
  • 1812 Remarks on an important Passage, Matt. xxi. 18, which has long been perverted by the Church of Rome in Support of her vain Pretensions to supreme Dominion over all other Episcopal Churches


Granville Sharp's tomb after restoration.

Sharp's portrait was made many times, both during his life and afterwards. The National Portrait Gallery, London holds seven portraits, including the large oil of The Sharp Family by Johann Zoffany and six pencil drawings, etchings and engravings. An oil portrait of Sharp by Mather Brown is in a private collection.[1][12]

As well as Granville Town in Sierra Leone, the free village of Granville in Jamaica was named after Sharp.

A memorial to Sharp was erected in Westminster Abbey, and he features in carved bas-relief on the side of the Clarkson Memorial, a memorial to fellow-abolitionist Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846).

In 2007 the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps to commemorate the two hundreth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom. Sharp featured on the 50p stamp.[13]

In 2007 Sharp's tomb in the graveyard of All Saint's Church, Fulham was also restored to coincide with the anniversary. In recognition of Sharp's historical importance and preparation for the anniversary, the tomb was listed as Grade II on 16 March 2007, only three months after the application was made to English Heritage and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The tomb was restored in June 2007[1] and a ceremony to mark the completion of the work was held in the church, attended by many notable figures including Professor Simon Schama. Speaking at the service, Schama said that "Sharp's great contribution was to 'lower the threshold of shame' in society."[14]

Granville Sharp's papers are deposited at the Gloucestershire Archives, reference D3549. There is also a substantial collection of his letters at York Minster Library.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Sheppard, John (2007). Granville Sharp: Father of the Anti-Slavery Movement in Britain. London: London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. 
  2. ^ Fulham at the time was a village surrounded by countryside, not part of the Greater London conurbation as today. The Sharps' Fulham House is not the house now known as Fulham House - the Sharps' Fulham House was demolished in the 1840s, and stood roughly where the Putney Travel Inn stands today.
  3. ^ Sharp, Granville (1798). Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article in the Greek Text of the New Testament, Containing Many New Proofs of the Divinity of Christ, from Passages Which Are Wrongly Translated in the Common English Version. London. p. 8. 
  4. ^ Wallace, Daniel B. (1983). "The Semantic Range of the Article-Noun-Kai'-Noun Plural Construction in the New Testament". Grace Theological Journal 4 (1): 61. Retrieved on 2008-12-19. 
  5. ^ Wallace 1983, pp 72-8
  6. ^ Winstanley, Calvin (1819 (2nd ed)). A Vindication of Certain Passages in the Common English Version of the New Testament: Addressed to Granville Sharp, Esq. pp. 39-40. 
  7. ^ Wallace, Daniel B. (1997). Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. p. 273, n.50. 
  8. ^ Winstanley passim
  9. ^ Winstanley, p. 39
  10. ^ Winstanley, p. 42
  11. ^ Winstanley, p. 43
  12. ^ "Granville Sharp (1735-1813), Scholar and philanthropist". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved on 2008-12-19. 
  13. ^ "Abolition of the Slave Trade - 22 March 2007. A great date in history". Royal Mail. 2007-03-22. Retrieved on 2008-12-19. 
  14. ^ "Granville Sharp tomb restoration, Fulham, London". Minerva Stone Conservation. Retrieved on 2008-12-19. 
  • Hoare, Prince, 1820, Memoirs of Granville Sharp, Esq., Composed from his own Manuscripts and Other Authentic Documents in the Possession of his Family and of the African Institution London (2nd edition of 1828 online at [1]
  • Hochschild, Adam, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 467 pp., paperback: ISBN 978-0-618-61907-8
  • Lascelles, Edward Charles Ponsonby, 1928, Granville Sharp and the Freedom of the Slaves in England Oxford University Press
  • Nadelhaft, Jerome, 1966, "The Somersett Case and Slavery: Myth, Reality, and Repercussions" in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Jul., 1966), pp. 193-208
  • Pollard, Albert Frederick, "Granville Sharp" in The Dictionary of National Biography, XVII, pp. 1339-1342
  • Stuart, Charles, 1836, A Memoir of Granville Sharp New York: The American Anti-Slavery Society
  • Wise, Steven M., 2005, Though The Heavens May Fall: The Landmark Trial That Led To The End Of Human Slavery

External links


Faith (for Content):