Painting, Portrait of Charles Steuart (1725-1797)

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  • Possibly by: David Allan (1744-1796)
  • Great Britain
  • ca. 1785?
  • Oil on Canvas
  • Gift of Miss Sylvia Steuart
  • 1956-495

Born and educated in Scotland, Charles Steuart came to Virginia in 1741 in the capacity of storekeeper for a Glasgow tobacco merchant. He prospered in business, eventually heading his own mercantile establishment in Norfolk.

In 1762, Steuart narrowly averted an international incident by befriending and protecting a party of high-ranking Spanish naval officers when they were beset by an unruly Norfolk mob. He was much commended for his initiative, courage, and diplomacy in handling this so-called "Don Pedro Bermudez Affair," and he was rewarded with the post of Receiver General of His Majesty's Customs in North America. He served the crown as Receiver General from 1767 to 1776.

Today, however, Steuart is best known for his role in a landmark legal case involving the institution of slavery. James Somerset was born in Africa and brought by a slaver to Virginia, where Steuart acquired him in 1749. Somerset typically accompanied Steuart as the latter traveled about in pursuit of his customs duties. In 1771, while the two were in England, Somerset ran away. Following his re-capture, Steuart had him imprisoned aboard a ship bound for Jamaica, where the captain was instructed to sell him. Abolitionists then mobilized on the enslaved man's behalf, their affidavits prompting a writ of habeas corpus by which Somerset was placed in the custody of the court pending a decision as to whether he had been accorded due process. Ultimately, the bench decided that a slave in England could not be forcibly returned to the colonies. At the time (and even since), many misinterpreted the decision as "ending" slavery. While it failed to accomplish anything so sweeping, it did become a critical symbolic ruling that encouraged abolitionists worldwide and paved the way for true emancipation legislation.

Colonial Williamsburg's portrait of Steuart is dated 1765 on the back of its original canvas, but the painting may have been created later. Size aside, it duplicates a privately-owned miniature portrait that, now, is thought to have been done first; likely the date refers to the year the miniature was executed. Colonial Williamsburg's donor was a great-great-great-grandniece of the subject. According to her notes, both miniature and oil-on-canvas show Steuart in the attire he wore when he was presented to King George III following the Don Pedro Bermudez incident.

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