This is the first blog from the research project examining the social history of self-liberated, formerly enslaved black people in Great Britain. The formal title is ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century’. Twitter: @runawayslavesgb The project is based in History, School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow. The principal investigator is Professor Simon P. Newman; Postdoctoral Research Associate Dr. Stephen Mullen and Postgraduate Researcher and Research Assistant, Mr. Nelson Mundell.
There were many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ‘black’ runaways in Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century. Many were of African descent, some were Native Americans and others were from India. There is some debate whether this group were actually enslaved in Britain at all (there were white runaways escaping from servitude too) although it is clear the group under consideration in our project occupied an ambiguous position. In many cases, they were described as ‘slaves’ and most were certainly in bondage. Many had been trafficked from the New World to Great Britain where they were bought and sold as labourers to work without remuneration. Some were kidnapped and sent back to colonies such as Jamaica without their consent. In any case, this ambiguous status was addressed in two landmark British legal cases: Somerset v Stewart in England in 1772 and Knight v Wedderburn in Scotland in 1778. The Mansfield Decision, although hardly equivocal, certainly had an impact at home and abroad. Joseph Knight, an African, was held in servitude in Scotland after he made the journey from Jamaica with his owner, a Scottish plantation owner. After reading of the Mansfield decision in an Edinburgh newspaper, Joseph subsequently challenged his own unfree status in 1774. The resulting legal case laid out a very famous ruling in Scotland four years later:
That the State of Slavery is not recognised by the Laws of this Kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof and Found that the Regulations in Jamaica concerning slaves do not extend to this Kingdom and repelled the Defender’s Claim to perpetual Service. (National Records of Scotland, CS 235/K/2/2, p.32)
However, these two famous legal cases were in the last third of the Eighteenth Century – runaway advertisements were a common theme in newspapers over the previous hundred years. So, what of the lives of the unknown numbers of men, women and children who became runaways?
Newspaper advertisement reveals lots of details to the historian; age, gender, origins, diseases, bodily markings. One example – albeit in an American context, where there is a mature historiography – provides much detail.
The image itself (thanks to @Limerick1914 for this image) is an advertisement intended to facilitate the recapture of two runaway slaves in Surry County, Virginia in October 1773 – a year after the Somerset Case. The process began with a very public proclamation that the individuals had escaped from bondage. The master evidently valued his enslaved property so much that he advertised detailed descriptions in the Virginia Gazette and offered rewards for their recapture. The reward system ensured there was much work for nefarious hunter-capturers. Although runaways in Great Britain ran away from a very different type of bondage and to a very different type of freedom, the recapturing process would have been similar.
In terms of the runaways themselves, we learn from the advertisement that one of the runaways was female, a twenty seven year old woman named Amy, and another was male, a nineteen year old named Bachus who was born in Africa. Bacchus had evidently been subjected to the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ and had been branded on the hand, most likely on a Virginian plantation. We also learn much about the determination of the owner: he offers an incremental reward and rising expenses dependant on how far the runaways escaped.
Interestingly, we also learn about the mentalité of both slave-owner and the enslaved. According to this advertisement, there was a ‘prevalent…notion’ amongst enslaved people in Virginia that if they escaped and reached Britain ‘they will be free’, a mindset surely influenced by the Mansfield Decision of June 1772. Running away was the greatest act of self-determination, and this vexed the slave-owners as would it deprive them of their chattel property and the profits from the expropriation of labour. The advertisement ended with a typical warning: do not offer runaways passage from Virginia or offer them work within the colony. These advertisements represent both an attempt to regain immediate ownership of the enslaved property and also an attempt to limit the collaboration with the local population which could have prolonged freedom. Their fate – and whether they reached Great Britain at all – is unknown. Watch this space.
Cairns, John W., ‘After Somerset: The Scottish Experience’ (2012) Journal of Legal History, vol. 33, pp.291-312
Chater, Kathy, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the Slave Trade, c.1660-1807 (Manchester, 2009)
Myers, Norma, Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain c.1780-1830 (London, 1996)
Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, (London, 1977)
Shyllon, F., Black Slaves in Britain, (London, 1974)
Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, (London, 1973)
Walvin, J., England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776-1838 (London, 1986)