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, others were craftsmen, labourers and washerwomen, and still more the 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.


William Cavendish, the second Duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr. Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant
Unknown Artist, Elihu Yale; ca. 1708.
Image © Yale Centre for British Art.


For slave-owners the escape of their bound workers 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 slave” advertisements are a rich source of information about the enslaved and slavery in eighteenth-century Britain.


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.


The principal sources for this project are English and Scottish newspapers, covering the years 1700-1780. Although some have been digitized, the poor quality of surviving newsprint makes digital text searching unreliable, so project researchers have combed thousands of physical, microfilmed and electronic newspaper issues in libraries and archives around Britain. The database contains full transcriptions of advertisements, and when possible photographic reproductions. 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, and another includes advertisements placed by people seeking to purchase the bodies or work of the enslaved or bound. 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 and the College of Arts of the University of Glasgow.

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