Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century

The Project

There were many thousands of people of African, Asian and Indigenous American descent in eighteenth-century Britain. A few such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho became quite famous but we know relatively little about most of these people because so few have left any records of their existence. Some were sailors and dock workers, while a few were craftsmen, labourers and washerwomen. Most, however, were domestic servants and workers in the households of elite and mercantile families who had spent time in or had connections with the British Empire’s colonies. Some were free, others were bound and indentured servants, and some were enslaved.

Olaudah Equiano was enslaved and the property of Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Like other enslaved people owned by ship officers and captains, Equiano was brought to Britain on several occasions between 1754 and 1768 when he returned to Britain as a free man. On one such visit in 1759 he was baptised at St. Margaret’s Westminster.
Image © John Carter Brown Library.

The Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Britain project has created a searchable database of well over eight hundred newspaper advertisements placed by masters and owners seeking the capture and return of enslaved and bound people who had escaped. Many were of African descent, though a small number were from the Indian sub-continent and a few were Indigenous Americans. To the enslaved flight represented one of the greatest acts of self-determination, and some historians have argued that runaways challenged the slave system from within and contributed to their own and others' eventual emancipation. While some were not enslaved, many were described by their masters as slaves and property. And while they were vulnerable to transport back to colonies where their status would be, at best, uncertain, few could enjoy complete freedom in Great Britain.

Until now, knowledge of the unnamed—or renamed—enslaved people in eighteenth-century Britain has been spotty at best. Now comes this remarkable database of runaways, putting them into the history and geography in a very real way. This painstaking work will inform the work of scholars and social historians for decades to come.

- Prof. Gretchen Gerzina,
University of Massachusetts,
Author of Black England: Life before Emancipation and Black London

William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant
Unknown Artist, Elihu Yale; ca. 1708. The identity and status of the boy is unknown, but this is how he is identified on the website of the Yale Center for British Art, and the collar and lock around his neck suggest that he was enslaved.
Image © Yale Centre for British Art.

Few British workers, white or black, enjoyed complete freedom as we understand it today. White rural labourers and domestic servants contracted to work for masters, and during the period of service they were legally bound to their masters. While they had rights, their time and labour was not their own. But the lack of freedom of those people of colour who were enslaved or held between slavery and servitude was altogether different, and the escape of white or black people could mean quite different things to both escapee and master. For slave-owners the escape of their human property was a personal affront, a dereliction of duty and a significant theft of valuable property. Eager to recapture their valuable human property, masters placed advertisements in newspapers offering rewards for the capture and return of the escapee. In these newspaper advertisements they described the physical characteristics, mannerisms, habits, skills and inclinations of people who are otherwise all but completely absent from historical records. Thus, the men, women and children who ran away in an attempt to be free of servitude inadvertently generated records of themselves, their lives and their motives, albeit records created by white masters. The result is that “runaway” advertisements are a rich source of information about the enslaved and slavery in eighteenth-century Britain, including those people of colour who were not enslaved but were bound servants and apprentices.

Slavery sustained the United Kingdom’s vast eighteenth-century empire, and many masters came home with some of the men, women, and children they held in bondage. When these ran away, slaveholders inevitably sought to recapture them and break their will to independence. But now, with the aid of this remarkable database, we can search them out for other reasons. From this collection of runaway advertisements, we can learn something about those heroic individuals, untamed by the haughty tyrants who attempted to bend them down. Maybe we can even imagine ourselves running with them, tracing routes of refuge and pathways to freedom within a tragic world of captivity and coercion.

- Prof. Vincent Brown,
Harvard University,
Author of Odyssey of a Slave War and
The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery.

This is thought to be Joshua Reynolds’ unfinished image of a black man, c. 1770. The subject is quite possibly Francis Barber, who was gifted to Samuel Johnson after his wife had died. Francis was born enslaved in Jamaica, brought to England c. 1745 and then freed c. 1754. After a period in the Navy, he returned to work as Johnson's servant until his Master, and friend's, death.
Image © Tate Library.

Slavery did not exist in Britain as it did in the colonies. But those who had purchased enslaved people and brought them back to Britain, along with the enslaved themselves, brought with them a set of beliefs about what white masters could legally do with and to their human property. While the uncertainty of the law and social mores more generally dissolved many of the colonial practices of slavery within Britain, it remained possible for masters to sell their human property, to mark them as property with slave collars, and to return them to colonies where their enslavement would be certain. As Olaudah Equiano recorded in his autobiography, he was in Gravesend, Kent when his master Lieutenant Michael Pascal sold him to Robert King, an American merchant who promptly transported Equiano back to the Caribbean. Similarly, when Robert Cunningham Graham returned from Jamaica to Scotland, he and his wife Ann sold most of their enslaved servants but brought two back to Scotland. One was Martin, but Graham grew dissatisfied with Martin’s work and sent him back to be sold in Jamaica. Expecting to receive more than £100 for Martin, Graham instructed his agent in Jamaica to use the proceeds of the sale to buy Graham some good quality madeira. The point here is that however unlike colonial slavery labour in Britain may have appeared, for many bound and enslaved people of colour a return to colonial bondage meant that any freedom they enjoyed in Britain was precarious.

The runaways are the silent heroes who created opportunities for future generations of people of colour, and it is important that their existence is acknowledged and celebrated.

- Morayo Akandé
Actor, writer 1745

The principal sources for this project are English and Scottish newspapers published between 1700 and 1780. Although some have been digitized, the poor quality of surviving newsprint makes digital text searching unreliable, so project researchers have surveyed thousands of newspaper issues in archives all over Britain, some in their original print form as well as many more on microfilm or digital form. The database contains full transcriptions of advertisements, and when possible photographic reproductions (some have been digitally manipulated to improve legibility). A user guide explains how to make use of the database, and a glossary of terms used in the advertisements is also available. An additional document provides examples of newspaper advertisements offering enslaved people for sale in England and Scotland. Finally, these webpages include a guide to further reading and web resources, as well as resources designed to make this data useful to school teachers and their pupils.

This project has been made possible by support from the Leverhulme Trust, and from the School of Humanities and the College of Arts of the University of Glasgow.

'Gloucester', Bath Chronicle,
10th February 1763
Image © The British Library Board.
All Rights Reserved.