Category Archives: Academia

Glasgow University Rector sold man for £100 and spent the money on wine

The slave labour of Africans made Robert Cunningham Graham a wealthy man. After 20 years in Jamaica, he returned home to Scotland in 1772. Before leaving, Graham and his wife sold some of the enslaved people they owned, but they brought two enslaved people back to Scotland as servants. One, a young man named Martin, did not adjust to life in Scotland, and was sent back to Jamaica to be sold for more than £100, which Graham spent on wine.

A little over a decade later Graham was elected Rector of his alma mater, the University of Glasgow. After serving for a year Graham stepped down. He left a parting gift to the University of £100, endowing a prize for the best student work on political liberty. He was succeeded in 1787 by moral philosopher and political economist Adam Smith. Smith was one of a succession of Glasgow academics who spoke out against the transatlantic slave trade and slavery itself. The University Senate also petitioned Parliament against the slave trade, and some years later the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson described abolitionist sentiment within the University as ‘a great honour’.

Benefiting from slavery while supporting abolitionism may have been contradictory but they are both integral to the history of the University. It is an institution that grew in a city tied to the trade in tobacco, sugar and cotton, all of which were initially produced by enslaved Africans. In July 2016, the University launched an in-depth investigation into how it benefitted from the profits of historical racial slavery. This was a brave decision, but one rooted in the core values of an educational institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth and social justice.

The report shows that this slavery ‘dividend’ took two forms. People who had made or inherited money some of which had been generated by or through slavery either made gifts to support students and research or contributed to the building of new campus in the west end of Glasgow between 1866 and 1880.

The report makes clear the extreme difficulties of such research. Surviving records are fragmentary, and what proportion of any given gift may have been slavery-related is often impossible to determine. Similarly, the different scales used to determine the present-day value of historical gifts vary widely and are notoriously imprecise. However, despite this uncertainty the report clearly establishes that the University of Glasgow did receive significant amounts of slavery-related money.

Just how much, and what it is ‘worth’ today, may never be known, but of prime importance is the University’s public acknowledgement of the existence of this slavery ‘dividend’. What matters most is how this new knowledge is used, and the action it inspires. As part of its response the University has committed itself to ‘Moving forward: a programme of reparative justice’ to be rolled out over the coming years.

By commissioning this report and developing this reparative justice programme, the University of Glasgow is seeking to acknowledge its past in the most positive and productive ways possible, echoing the approaches of American universities from Yale and Harvard to Georgetown and Virginia.

Professor Simon P. Newman

(This appeared in The Sunday Times 16 September 2018. The report can be accessed at

Scot Free: Dr. James McCune-Smith and the long arm of racism, pt.II

In a three-part series of blogs, Professor Simon Newman writes on the cultural significance of James McCune-Smith, describing Smith’s status as one of nineteenth-century America’s great public intellectuals. Part I can be found here, and part III can be found here.

In this second blog on James McCune-Smith, Prof. Newman analyses Smith’s series of articles on New York’s working class African Americans which appeared under the general title ‘Heads of the Colored People’.

Many of Smith’s essays were written for Frederick Douglass’s publications and quite often Smith addressed these to Douglass, abandoning literary conventions in order to write something of interest and importance to a valued friend. Many of his essays shared a concern with rejecting the condescension and paternalism of whites (including Abolitionists) and showing African Americans to be as able, as hard-working, as loving and as spiritual as white Americans. Moreover, Smith delighted in highlighting the ways in which African American culture infused and enriched American life, anticipating Ralph Ellison’s suggestion that Euro-Americans were more African than they knew. In an essay celebrating the multi-racial society of Nicaragua published in 1852 Smith astutely observed that white Americans who doubted the intellect and ability of black Americans did so because they did not see the person in front of them but instead observed “a hideous monster of the mind… so utterly and ineffably monstrous as to frighten reason from its throne, and justice from its balance, and mercy from its hallowed temple,” the product of centuries of racism.

Amongst the most interesting of Smith’s essays are a series of ten biographical character sketches entitled “Heads of the Coloured People,” which were published in Frederick Douglass’s Paper between 1852 and 1854. Smith used his considerable literary skills to paint carefully crafted word portraits of the lives and work of members of New York City’s black working class, many of them people he encountered through his medical practice and pharmacy. This was an era of significant and sometimes violent racism in the city, made worse by a lengthy economic recession that made competition for jobs all the more difficult. Moreover, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 meant that escaped slaves who had made lives for themselves in New York faced recapture and return to the South, forcing many to leave. It was this embattled community, seldom the subject of serious study in mid-nineteenth century America, upon which Smith focused, with essays on a newspaper seller, a washerwoman, a bootblack, a church sexton and others. In order to capture these people Smith experimented with his writing, rejecting the sentimental fictional norms of the day for a kind of realism that was ahead of its time. He described and reported their thoughts and words, often in idiomatic English, and he celebrated them as dignified and respectable residents of the city who deserved respect. Indeed, Smith’s portrayals of the “heads” of black people implicitly lampooned the phrenologists who claimed African Americans were somehow less civilized and not as advanced as white Americans.

Smith’s portraits seamlessly blend classical literary allusions into rich descriptions of working people and their environments. “The Black News-Vendor” was a runaway slave from Virginia who had left the city whenever slave catchers came near, losing his legs two years earlier following a shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey. Smith watched this husband and father, “razed to the knees,” engaging with white customers, observing that “the true heart of the American people beats kindly and with warm sympathy towards him!” From hung-over Irishmen who sometimes view African Americans with great suspicion to “the dandy, who thinks… the negro almost a dog,” the vendor’s customers treated him with respect and kindness, “human creature to human creature”. “The Boot-Black” was an illiterate former slave who was committed to the education of his children, a parent determined that his children would enjoy the advantages denied to him. With no little relish Smith reported that the man’s eldest daughter had become a teacher with a successful school of her own. Smith’s sketch of “The Whitewasher” appears strikingly modern, with its portrayal of a man employed to paint and whitewash walls as one who understood the roots and nature of America’s racial divide and who did not hesitate to exploit it, overcharging the same white customers he lampooned. Admiring the man’s skill as a craftsman, an artist and a businessman, Smith was perhaps most impressed by this African-born former slave’s learning and wit. Still able to write Arabic and recite portions of the Qu’ran he was “full of apt proverbs… always hot and pithy.” When the whitewasher told a “wag” that he had come from Africa, the young white man asked “What brought you here?” “Your broder” responded the whitewasher, and when challenged he went on “Well, he had straight hair, blue eyes, small mout’, and white skin, must be your broder!” With no little satisfaction Smith reported that as “they say in Congress, the “conversation dropped.”” In “The Washerwoman” Smith described a powerful African American woman who as she irons clothes thinks with a smile of the care package she has just sent South to “her sisters and their children who toil as hard but without any pay!” It is the rhythm of her work which defines Smith’s literary sketch, the “Dunk! Dunk!” of the smoothing iron on the board punctuating descriptions that elevate the woman and the dignity of her work.

Although he published all of Smith’s “heads” portraits, Douglass did not entirely approve of them, as he made clear in a “Letter from the Editor” (May 1853). Douglass contended that “little can be learned of the coloured people as a whole by merely seeing them in the streets,” and in contrast he described and celebrated the respectable, middle class African Americans who were members of a church affiliated literary society, before mentioning other prosperous businesses owned by black Americans. “In respect to talents and real ability,” Douglass concluded, the “colored citizens of New York” were an impressive people who showed themselves the equal of whites, and he asked “Why will not my able New York correspondent bring some of the real “heads of the colored people” before our readers?” But Smith ignored his friend, for Smith refused to locate the future of his race solely in the emulation of middle class white respectability by an emerging black middle class. While Douglass felt that Smith’s portraits were demeaning, Smith continued to celebrate craftsmen and labouring men and women who were as able to transcend racism as bourgeois black Americans.

McCune Smith. Prize-list, Humanity Class, 1833-34 (Sen10/3, p.47)


Professor Simon Newman holds the Sir Denis Brogan Chair of American History at the University of Glasgow, and the Director of the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies.

Scot Free: Dr. James McCune-Smith and the long arm of racism, pt.I

In a three-part series of blogs, Professor Simon Newman writes on the cultural significance of James McCune-Smith, describing Smith’s status as one of nineteenth-century America’s great public intellectuals. Part II can be found here, and part III can be found here.

In this first blog Prof. Newman describes James McCune-Smith as he prepares to leave Glasgow and embark on his return home to the United States, reflecting on how his life and education in Glasgow had affected him.

In May of 1837 a young American named James McCune Smith walked from the centre of Glasgow down to the River Clyde. Among a forest of ship masts he spotted the stars and stripes flying above the Cannonicus, and made his way to the ship where he approached John Bigley, the ship’s captain. Smith had spent five years in Scotland studying at the University of Glasgow, and in an era when few Americans attended university, and fewer still bothered to finish their degrees and graduate, Smith had earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and finally a medical degree. Fluent in Latin, Greek and French and with a working knowledge of Hebrew, Italian, Spanish and German, Smith was one of the best educated Americans of the nineteenth century, and he would become a leading American intellectual. But Captain Bigley refused to allow the young doctor to book a cabin for the journey to New York City. Smith was a twenty-four-year old African American, and Captain Bigley told the young man “I have not been accustomed to live with Coloured people.” When Smith protested, Bigley retorted that “such was the custom in the United States, and as his was an American vessel, the same rule would be followed by him.”

When Smith had left America in 1832 he would have been familiar with such treatment, and likely would have been used to accepting it. Smith had been born a slave in New York City on April 18, 1813, the son of a formerly enslaved woman named Lavinia and an unknown white man. The young boy remained enslaved until Independence Day in 1827 when he and all of New York’s remaining slaves were liberated. A fortunate beneficiary of the New York African Free-School on Mulberry Street, Smith was a particularly able pupil. While working full time in a blacksmith’s shop Smith had studied Latin and Greek in the evenings, preparing himself for the medical career he had chosen. When Smith applied to the medical schools at Columbia College and Geneva College in New York, however, he was denied admission on account of his race. In contrast the University of Glasgow in Scotland admitted Smith, and recognising the boy’s academic ability some of New York’s more prosperous African Americans combined to pay Smith’s passage to Scotland and contribute towards his tuition and living costs, which would later be shared by the Glasgow Emancipation Society.

Smith flourished in the demanding academic environs of one of Britain’s “ancient” medieval universities, and a leading seat of the Scottish Enlightenment. The University of Glasgow had been the intellectual home of scholars such as Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson, Thomas Reid and Joseph Black, and between 1832 and 1837 Smith studied everything from Logic to Anatomy, and from Greek to Physics. Perhaps his happy years in Glasgow explain why Smith was surprised and angered by Captain Bigley’s refusal to allow him first class passage to New York, a decision that most black Americans of this era might have resented but would have quietly accepted. News of the incident soon appeared in Glasgow’s newspapers, spurring to action Smith’s fellow students, his professors and members of the Glasgow Emancipation Society, all of whom sent letters to Bigley protesting Smith’s treatment. The fact that so many influential Scots were as outraged as Smith gives a sense of the environment in which he had lived for five years. Their collective pressure succeeded and Smith sailed back to the city of his birth in a first class cabin, where The Colored American reported that the city’s black population welcomed his return “to his native home, to his doting mother, and to his loving and beloved friends.”

Smith returned to America as the first African American to hold a medical degree, and he is celebrated as such in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. But Smith was far more than an able professional physician. The holder of class prizes in Logic and Humanity and of three separate degrees, Smith came home not simply as a gifted and able African American but rather as one of America’s leading and best-educated intellectuals. His education and life in Scotland enabled Smith to become a fuller, freer man. Frederick Douglass listed Smith first and foremost among the black American friends who encouraged and supported him, recognising the deep significance of Smith’s five-year sojourn outside the United States. “Educated in Scotland, and breathing the free air of that country,” Douglass recalled, Smith “came back to his native land with ideas of liberty which placed him in advance of most of his citizens of African descent.” Racism and racial inequality were inherent in all aspects of American life and culture, and even in New York City a man such as Smith could not pass a single day without encountering prejudice and discrimination. Britain was by no means free of racism: indeed, slavery still existed in the British Caribbean when Smith arrived in Glasgow, and this was an age when Britons who were confident of their racial primacy were violently conquering, subduing and ruling people of colour across the globe. Yet in his daily life in Glasgow and in his studies at the university Smith found himself treated no differently than white students: indeed, he was a popular and respected classmate among white students who viewed him not only as their equal but in many cases as their intellectual superior. By escaping from America for a half-decade and living beyond the pervasive and destructive racial hierarchies of antebellum America, Smith was able to glimpse what was possible for black men and women in a society in which race mattered less, in which people were judged by their qualities and abilities. However simple this may sound, it was a vision that was scarcely comprehensible to most black Americans. What Smith brought back to New York City and America was a faith in the belief that things could be different, and he never wavered from that conviction.

While his abolitionist speeches and writings supported an end to slavery and black civil rights, most of Smith’s publications were the work of a black intellectual commentator who did not define himself solely by his race, who celebrated the nobility of Africans and their descendants, and who resisted the racial categorizations of others. Smith was not a major public speaker like Douglass, and he left behind no autobiography. It is in his published essays and articles that Smith’s supreme confidence in the full equality of black and white Americans are revealed, while the breadth and variety of his writings bear witness to the intellectual range of one of nineteenth-century America’s greatest minds. Smith resisted the dominant anthropological beliefs justifying white racial superiority. Ideas of American “Manifest Destiny” were premised on the conviction that the innate superiority of white Euro-Americans justified their subjugation of both Native Americans and African Americans, and Smith’s contemporary the celebrated white Southern doctor Josiah Knott believed that racial hierarchy could be measured and demonstrated. Phrenology, for example, appeared to be a modern and scientific means of relating cranial shape to human behaviour. Those who believed in racial inequality utilized phrenology to suggest that there were physiological limits to what black people could achieve. Smith wrote about medicine, science, pharmacy, and geography, but his education and his own interests encouraged him to transcend his professional world and write about the people and world around him, from a series of literary portraits of working class African Americans of New York to the first published assessment of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by an African American.

McCune Smith, MD degree 1837. Register of the names of Doctors of Medicine, graduates of the College of Glasgow , 1728-1888 (GUA26677)

Professor Simon Newman holds the Sir Denis Brogan Chair of American History at the University of Glasgow, and the Director of the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies.

Fellowship experience at International Centre for Jefferson Studies

This short blog, covering Nelson’s experience as a Fellow of the International Centre for Jefferson Studies in Monticello, Virginia, might give you a very rough idea of what a fellowship entails, with a few pointers from his own experience. Click for hi-res photos, and
if you have any questions you can always tweet @RunawaySlavesGB or @NelsonHistory

Once my application was accepted, a few weeks later I was in contacted by ICJS and told to start the application process for my B1 visa. This was fairly straight forward, but you need to visit an American Embassy to have a quick interview before they will admit you. Most people go to London to fulfill this, but I was advised that Belfast might be quicker, and cost just the same. It was, and I was over and back from Northern Ireland within 16 hours or so, with my passport with new American Visa reaching me in the post a few days later.


The highlight of my Belfast trip – Ulster Museum.


I arrived at Kenwood House, where ICJS is situated, tired of living out of my suitcase and desperate for a semi-permanent room. My previous ten or so days had seen me fit in some research in the Library of Congress in Washington DC, and attend and give a paper at the Eighteenth Century Scottish Studies Society/American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in Pittsburgh. I had had a great time, but was looking forward to sleeping without being awoken by couples squabbling at 4am, or people practising the banjo at 2am (protip: definitely research all your AirBnb bookings). I was given the lovely garage flat just beside Kenwood House and the Jefferson Library, and it was my own space, with kitchen, great shower, excellent bed and a fairly luxurious living room/study. After a couple nights of auditory hallucinations (curse that banjo ‘player’) I settled in, soon growing used to the absolute peace and quiet, it was wonderful.

Kenwood Garage

Kenwood House (left) and the Garage Apartment (right).

Kenwood lunch

Lunch outside the Garage Apartment.


The first day there I attended the Fellow’s Coffee – bagels, cakes and coffee with a large helping of more coffee. And cakes. And bagels. Here I was introduced to the other fellows and met most of the staff. The staff at ICJS were fantastic. I was the latest in over 500 fellows that have worked with ICJS, and I would be surprised if the first was any more warmly greeted than me. Everyone is interested in your field of study, common connections (first rule of history club: there are always common connections), and you as a person. The expertise at ICJS was frankly stunning: Prof Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Dr Gaye Wilson, Dr Christa Dierksheide, Mary Scott Fleming, and of course there are staff from the Jefferson Library, people such as Foundation Librarian Jack Robertson, Associate Foundation Librarian Endrina Tay and Research Librarian Anna Berkes. And then there are those working on the Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series with editor Jeff Looney. This is not to mention the Archaeological staff, the behind-the-scenes staff, as well as many, many volunteers! Pinning it all together for us fellows was Whitney Pippin, who organised and pulled the strings while there to ensure we got to make the most of the experience. Apart from all being lovely, helpful people, they really are a wealth of information on all areas of Jefferson, Monticello and Revolutionary America.

Monticello (1)

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. Fantastic interactive tour here.

TJ Band1

The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp band playing for Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13th.

Other fellows

It was brilliant to meet other academics during my stay, and in a context completely different to any other. A bond grows between you as you all share the same experience, whether or not it’s the first time being a fellow. I was fortunate to meet academics who studied: 18th & 19th C gardens and woman; 18th & 19th C agricultural improvement in Virginia; and a retired academic who proved that you’re never really retired, studying Benjamin Latrobe and his relationship with Jefferson. These different topics became clearer over the course of the fellow’s lunches every week that ICJS organised, where we had a chance to sit down and discuss our findings, but also enjoy each other’s company. Personally, I found it just as captivating when they talked about themselves: their lives, their careers and their adventures, related to history or not.

It also meant we had people to share the experience of discovering a new country or area with. Dismayed at having no-one to grab and go “Will you look at that!” in Washington D.C., it was nice to share the experience of discovering Monticello and Virginia with others. We ended up going on road trips to places like Crabtree Falls, the Blue Ridge, and further afield to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. The last two are definitely worth visiting if you manage a Fellowship with ICJS, or find yourself in the general area. Some find the dressing up and accents a tad off putting, but I thought it added to the experience and tried to imagine how it would have looked without all us tourists.

Duke of Gloucester Street, Colonial Williamsburg

Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial Williamsburg.

Pocahontas Governor's Palace

Pocahontas Statue from Historic Jamestowne; Governor’s Palace from Colonial Williamsburg.

My research

My PhD thesis, Race, Ethnicity and Otherness in the North British Press, 1740-1800 will examine the newspapers and periodicals of the time to try and ascertain how the press informed its readers of ‘others’, and how this contributed to their own ideas of identity. While other scholars have examined Scottish Enlightenment thought and philosophy with regard to race and identity, nobody has examined how the newspapers and periodical press articulated such ideas to broader audiences. From my fellowship with ICJS I wanted to research the output of Scots who had travelled to America and printed or published newspapers during the same period.

I had lots of questions I wanted to answer: Was there a distinct and recognizable Scottish way of describing and writing about ‘others’ which survived the journey across the Atlantic, or was it diluted and ‘Americanized’ as Scots published for a different but similar audience? If the latter, did this result in Scots abroad sending ‘Americanized’ ideas about race, otherness and identity back to Scotland, and did these help shape changes in Scottish representations and understandings in its own press?

First, I had to determine who the main Scottish newspapermen in America were. The Jefferson Library provided digitized versions of many newspapers of the colonies and Early Republic, but all too few were edited or published by Scots. I referred to Isaiah Thomas’ The History of Printing in America (1810) and Clarence S. Brigham’s meticulous 19 piece bibliography for the American Antiquarian Society (1913-1961) to try and track down a few of these men. Once I had my targets I was then able to search digitized versions of their newspapers and other published works, using keyword searches to locate articles that refer to race, ethnicity and identity. Unfortunately, the database interface is too clunky and inefficient to allow me to read the pages front to back, as I do with the Scottish newspapers, but keyword searching still provides a good coverage. While the work is still ongoing, it was great to make a good start in on this area, and I hope to do the same with Scots in the Caribbean in my third year.

Nelson forum1

My Fellow’s Forum presentation in my last week.

Some pointers

I am only on my first fellowship, so there will be blogs out there with more experience, but these are a few tips from my own time with Monticello:

  • Research

Research, research, research. Like the old Carnegie Hall joke (“practice”), if one word sums up a fellowship it could arguably be “research”. So, do some looking up on the staff at your destination, find out a little about the other fellows and their fields of interest, determine where the nearest grocery and, depending on your sensibilities, liquor stores are. These small things will make your trip feel not quite as daunting as being relocated somewhere new for a month and being completely unfamiliar with everything (can you guess who didn’t do enough research on grocery stores beforehand?).

  • Don’t live in a bubble

The fellowship experience should also be about your interactions with the world outside your own research. This sounds rather grandiose, but I just mean make sure you enjoy the experiences out-with your research. You will be in a new part of the country, or, if you’re lucky, a new country altogether, and this experience is about helping you grow as a person, by broadening your cultural horizons, gaining new perspectives on how people envisage things, and. Think about how these local contexts may have influenced local academics’ writings, locals’ opinions of politics and culture, and if and how it will influence your own writing.

  • Don’t take too much work with you

We all have too much work to do, and if we stay in academia this will never change. But try not to bring any more than the absolute “have to’s” – you don’t want to be spending your time stuck in your residence marking papers that aren’t due for ages, nor organising events that can be done when you return (and it can be tempting, with the lack of interruptions). Sure, keep your eye on the ball with emails, and doing some work for your institution will always be necessary, but ensure you aren’t keeping yourself away from the real reason you’re on the fellowship.

  • On returning

It was my first time away from Scotland, for that length (six weeks) and by myself. When I came back, it felt very surreal for the first couple of days, the five hour time difference really made everything seem a bit topsy-turvy (and it was sunny, which added to the feeling of being in a bizarro world!). This will get better as I travel more, but it’s worth giving yourself a couple of days to catch up with life and sort yourself out for work – clothes washing, food shopping, routine for work. I came back feeling rejuvenated and eager to get stuck in, but was glad I had laid out a fairly strict timetable for the first two weeks after the initial rest.

  • Enjoy it

It is, I have found, too easy to worry about time slipping away and the mound of work you have to do, the feelings of guilt at not being harried and harassed like your colleagues back home, but you are (as they will rightly remind you) in a very lucky position. You are here to research and write about your own work – this fellowship is about you. I had to stop myself a few times, take a few slow, deep breaths and remind myself that I’m in a very fortunate position. How many people will get to experience this? Surrounded by passionate people, immersed in history, free from day-to-day distractions and more coffee and bagels than you can shake a stick at. Some of the relationships you forge here, I’m told, will last a lifetime, for professional or personal reasons, there’s something quite lovely about that.


Finally, remember that the experience doesn’t start from when you arrive, it starts from when you send off that application. Everything along the way should help you grow as an academic and as a person, and I’ve certainly come back a bit more confident about my place in the academic world and where I see myself going in the future, with a bit of luck and a lot of hard work.


A version of this blog also exists on my PhD blog:

Project Team: United States Research/Symposium Trip, April 2016

This article summarises a University of Glasgow research/symposium trip to the United States of America in April 2016. Professor Simon Newman, Dr. Stephen Mullen, Mr Nelson Mundell, Dr Felicity Donohoe and postgraduate researchers Debra Burnett and Marenka Odlum-Thompson made the trip across the Atlantic which was centred around a symposium at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, VA, on 11-15 April 2016.

Staff and students from Glasgow and Edinburgh at UVA
Staff and students from Glasgow and Edinburgh at UVA

The trip was made in collaboration with scholars from the University of Edinburgh, led by Professor Frank Cogliano. For nine years, there has been a monthly transatlantic videoconference (held at the University of Edinburgh and UVA) attended by staff and postgraduate students at Virginia, Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities: the trip connected friends and colleagues who have been in regular collegiate discussion for almost a decade. The participation of Glasgow staff, postdocs and Ph.D students was made possible by a grant from the Chancellor’s Fund of the University of Glasgow, as well as an award from the Embassy of the United States. Additional support came from the University of Edinburgh.

George Washington Monument
George Washington Monument

Several of the Glasgow team took advantage of the trip to look at archive holdings related to their personal research. Due to generous assistance from the University of Glasgow History Research Support Fund, Stephen Mullen spent some time in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C and Princeton University. Nelson Mundell is on an extended fellowship (blog to follow!) at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies (ICJS).

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

And academics get a day off too! Allowing for some time for a little sight-seeing of famous landmarks: United States Capitol Building, Independence Avenue (with many museums), The Washington Monument and The White House.

The real work began on Tuesday 12 April 2016 at the University of Virginia. At UVA, we were provided with a tour of Harrison Institute and Small Special Collections Library including a museum exhibit of material related to the American War of Independence. There was also a tour of the Digital Production Group and their work, including digitisation the letters of Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson bust, Harrison Institute, UVA
Thomas Jefferson bust, Harrison Institute, UVA

The Edinburgh/Glasgow team were allowed a special viewing of Thomas Jefferson materials by Edward Gaynor, Librarian for Virginia and University Archives. Edward discussed Jefferson’s role in establishing the University of Virginia in 1819 including his preference for English, Irish and Scottish Professors over Germans in the early days (although a German Professor was employed in any case)! The Postdocs from both Edinburgh and Glasgow met with Professor Alan Taylor of UVA for a useful discussion. Simultaneously, postgraduate students attended Max Edelson’s Graduate Seminar in Nau Hall, UVA. On the evening, Glasgow, Edinburgh and UVA staff and students attended the Early American Seminar at ICJS to hear Edinburgh Ph.D student Ryan McGuiness’ paper on ‘The Barbadian Import and Export Trade, 1680-1700’.

The project team were present at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s slave plantation in Charlottesville) on 13 April 2016, which was Jefferson’s 273rd birthday.

Thomas Jefferson statue, Monticello
Thomas Jefferson statue, Monticello

There was a short ceremony – with the US Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp – for Jefferson’s birthday and Founders Day which was followed by an acceptance speech by Marian Wright Edelman, who was awarded the 2016 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Citizen Leadership.

U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp
U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp

The team were treated to a bespoke tour of Jefferson’s Monticello by Liz Marshall. Back at UVA in the afternoon many attended the Cross Lecture by Professor Gary Gallagher entitled: ‘All About US: Projection, Wishful Thinking, and Anachronism in Recent Civil War Scholarship’. Thursday 14 April was workshop day centred on career development on both sides of the Atlantic: Professors Frank Cogliano, Max Edelson, Simon Newman and Alan Taylor were joined in discussion with Head of UVA Press, Dick Holway. Postgraduates enjoyed a dissertation workshop in the afternoon, presenting short outlines of their ongoing research projects. There was a concluding dinner in Charlottesville in the evening.

Some of the team made their way back to Washington D.C. on Friday 15 April. Others stayed on. I (Stephen Mullen) made my way to Princeton University in New Jersey to look at archive holdings in Special Collections.

Nassau Hall, Princeton University
Nassau Hall, Princeton University

Princeton has strong connections with Scotland and the Scottish Enlightenment and is Professor Simon Newman’s alma mater. A Scots Minister, John Witherspoon was President of Princeton (1768-1794) during the revolutionary period and was the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. It was a great experience to be researching in an Ivy League University with such strong Scottish connections. In all, this was an illuminating multifaceted trip: many gained important professional experience, met new friends, undertook research or delivered presentations on their work. The Glasgow team were sad to leave and we hope to see our friends in Edinburgh and at UVA in the near future.


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 visit this website
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.

Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.
Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.

The image itself (thanks to @Limerick1914  for cartier love bracelet 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 fake cartier bracelet 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.

Further Reading

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)