Category Archives: British Slavery

Thomas Anson

This is a guest blog written by independent researcher Audrey Dewjee. Audrey has more than 40 years of research, mainly examining and unearthing the history of Black and Asian people in Britain. She collaborated with the project while it was in the research stage, allowing access to her personal database of runaway advertisements that she had painstakingly built up over the period.

Nelson Mundell’s blog about Caesar, who absconded from Novar Estate in the Highlands of Scotland in 1771, inspired me to write about a runaway from another remote location, this time in Yorkshire, in 1758.

At the end of the 1990s, I started my own runaways database which covers the years 1659-1795.  Thomas Anson was one of the earliest entries on my list.

‘Thomas Anson’, Runaway Slaves in 18th Century Britain database, University of Glasgow [accessed 13.11.18]

                                        R  U  N     A  W  A  Y,
From Dent in Yorkshire,on Monday the 28th of Aug. last,
THOMAS ANSON, a Negro Man, about five Feet six Inches High, aged 20 Years or upwards, and broad set, Whoever will bring the said Man back to Dent, or give any Information that he may be had again, shall receive a handsome Reward from Mr. Edmund Sill of Dent, or Mr.David Kenyon, Merchant in Liverpool.[1]

The Sills were yeoman farmers and their farm, High Rigg End, was situated high on the slopes of Whernside, near to the village of Dent.[2]  At 2,415 ft. (736 m.), Whernside is the highest mountain in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and it is subject to harsh weather conditions. 

High Rigg End from the Barbon Road, c.2000 (Audrey Dewjee)

Like many of the farmers in the area, the Sills looked for a means of supplementing their income to tide them over difficult times when failed harvests, floods or other disasters befell them.  Most residents of Dent supplemented their income by knitting.  The “Terrible [i.e. terribly good] Knitters” of Dent were famous both for the speed and quality of their work.  At a time before industrialisation, hand knitting was a very important skill and the people of Dent, both male and female, learnt to knit at a very early age.  They were especially known for their knitted stockings which were sent to London and other parts of the country.

However, some residents of the town looked further afield for an income and in particular to aspects of the lucrative transatlantic trade and plantation economy of the Americas.

John Sill (brother of Edmund who placed the runaway advertisement) was a merchant in Redcross Street, Liverpool, and in 1757 he became part-owner of two ships – the Dent and the Pickering– which both sailed for the West Indies in September of that year.

Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 19 August 1757

The Dent (owned by John Sill and David Kenyon) set sail at the end of September, 1757, arriving in Jamaica on 6 January, 1758.[3]  She returned safely to Liverpool on 24 September, 1758, with a cargo of sugar and cotton.  Shortly afterwards on 31 October, the Dent was sold and subsequently renamed the Planter.  John Sill was no longer one of the owners.

The Pickering, bound for Cork and St. Christophers (St. Kitts), left Liverpool a few days before the departure of the Dent, arriving at Cork on 24 September, 1757.[4]  I have been unable to find any record of her reaching her destination or returning to Liverpool.[5]   

A clue to the fate of the Pickering may lie in Gomer Williams’s History of the Liverpool Privateers and Letters of Marque, with an Account of the Liverpool Slave Trade, published in 1897.  In Appendix III on page 665, a ship named The Pickering is included under the heading of “List of Vessels trading to and from Liverpool Captured by the Enemy during the Seven Years’ War, 1756-1763”.  This is not definitive evidence as the Master’s name is not entered on the list.  However, this disaster might explain why John Sill ceased investing in shipping, as his name doesn’t appear again in the Plantation Registers after 1758.[6]

Four weeks before the Dent arrived back in Liverpool, Thomas Anson absconded from Dent Town.  How did he get away?  Where did he go?  Did he succeed in evading recapture?  I have wondered about his fate for well over 20 years.  No doubt David Kenyon placed the advertisement in the paper as he was based in Liverpool and was already in business with the Sill family via his ship-owning partner John.  The advertisement was repeated in the same newspaper a week later.

At some point John Sill went to Jamaica where he bought a plantation called Providence situated near Montego Bay.  When he died in 1774, he left his estate to his nephews – Edmund, John and James, the sons of Edmund Sill of Dent.  At the time of his death, there were 266 enslaved workers on the plantation which produced sugar, rum and molasses.[7]  Profits from the plantation, which was subsequently run by overseers, enabled the brothers to buy up land and farms in and around Dent and towards the end of the century they built a new mansion for themselves in Deepdale which they named West House.

All three brothers died young, leaving their sister Ann heiress to their fortune and occupier of the new house.  She survived until 1835, dying at the age of 69.  In her will she left legacies to many relatives as well as people in the local area.  On Emancipation, her heirs benefited from the compensation of £3783 1s. 8d. paid for the 174 enslaved workers on Providence plantation.[8]

So, what happened to Thomas Anson?  I’m pleased to say that he did indeed escape from the clutches of Edmund Sill.  Recently I have been researching and writing for the African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire project.[9]  As a consequence I have been in touch with a number of old colleagues from BASA (Black and Asian Studies Association).  I met up with John Ellis to compare our databases (mine of parish records and runaways; his of 18th century Black soldiers and military bandsmen) to see if we had people in common.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that a Thomas Anson, born in Africa, had been discharged from the 4th Dragoons in 1768, aged 30.  As the name and age fit with the details in the runaway advertisement, I am certain this is the same man.  He had joined the regiment in 1760, and served eight years as a trumpeter. 

How did he find his way to the 4th Dragoons?  He was not the only Black runaway to do so around that date.  James Williams and Joseph Blenheim also enlisted in the regiment and were subsequently discharged on account of “being a slave” and “being the property of” their masters.  Both absconded a second time – James in 1756, and Joseph in 1758.[10]

At the beginning of 1760, the 4th Dragoons were in Scotland, returning to England later in the year.  They were then stationed near London and probably remained in England until 1764 when the 4th returned to Scotland for a year.  This was at the time of the Highland Clearances.  The Regiment returned to England in 1765 and was reviewed by King George III in 1767.[11]

The Dragoons were mounted regiments.  Thomas Anson would have been dressed in an elaborate uniform and ridden a fine horse.  As John Ellis explains,

In battle the role of a trumpeter was an extremely important one; they were the battlefield communication system, accompanying troop commanders and other senior officers and being responsible for relaying orders over the din of battle.  However once such order as chargereform and retreat had been given, trumpeters drew sabres and participated in whatever action their unit was engaged in.  Unfortunately trumpeters suffered a major disadvantage in battle, and because fashion and tradition dictated that they were dressed in the reverse colours of their regiment, they became popular targets for enemy fire (the greatest incentive for killing a trumpeter was the obvious damage that would be done to the enemy’s ability to communicate).[12] 

Luckily, the years 1760-68 were fairly quiet ones for the regiment, so Thomas Anson would not have been involved in a major battle.

He was discharged to pension on 7th June 1768 after eight years’ service because he had “lost his tooth,” which no doubt meant that he could no longer blow his trumpet.[13]  At least he had the benefit of a continued income and therefore would not be completely destitute.

Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Regimental Registers of Pensioners, 1717-1775.

Nowadays, very few people are engaged in researching British Black History.  Discovering what happened to Thomas Anson demonstrates the importance of sharing information with others who continue to carry out this research.

Audrey Dewjee


[1] Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 8 September 1758.

[2] Dent Town, as it was known in the 18th Century, used to be in the West Riding of Yorkshire but, after the county boundary changes in 1967, it is now in Cumbria.

[3] Lloyds List, No. 2321, 7 April 1758. 

[4] Lloyds List, No. 2270, 7 October 1757.  The owners of the Pickering were David Kenyon, John Sill, John Atkinson, and her Master, John Hughes – see Liverpool Plantation Registers, 27 August 1767 – National  Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives and Library, C/EX/L/3/1-4.

[5] A ship named Pickering with a different Master (William Fish) arrived in Liverpool from Tortola on 11 August 1758, but this was a different vessel. 

[6] The Liverpool Plantation Registers contain the text of owner’s declarations under the Act for preventing Frauds and regulating Abuses in the Plantation Trade, 7-8 William and Mary (1695-6) chap. 22, recording, amongst other details, the vessel’s name, home port, where built, the name of the master, type of vessel, tonnage, and name of owner or part-owners.  Liverpool Plantation Registers: National Museums Liverpool, Maritime Archives and Library, C/EX/L/3/1 – 4.

[7] Details from the online database of Legacies of British Slave-ownership, University College London,  [accessed 10/12/2018]

[8] Ibid.  [accessed 18/01/2018]

[9] African Stories in Hull and East Yorkshire  [accessed 10/12/2018]

[10] Whitehall Evening Post, 17 February 1756; London Chronicle, 16 March 1758.

[11] I am grateful to John Ellis for information about the 4th Dragoons.

[12] John Ellis, ‘The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century’, MA thesis, University of Nottingham, 2000.

[13] Royal Hospital, Chelsea: Regimental Registers of Pensioners, 1717-1775.

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

Caesar, a cook at Novar House

On the 22nd of June 1771, on page 3 of the Edinburgh newspaper Caledonian Mercury, amongst advertisements for “GLASSES in Mr. Moffat’s shop”, the selling of the “Mansion-house and Manor Place of DALRY” and right next to details of the “commodious” rooms at Corstorphine Grammar School, appears this advertisement:


ON the eleventh current, there run away from the house of Colonel M[u]nro of Novar, in Ross-shire, a BLACK SLAVE, a native of the East Indies, called CÆSAR. He is about 25 or 26 years of age, about 5 feet, 4 or 5 inches high, has long black hair, and was bred a Cook. Whoever secures the said slave, within any of his Majesty’s gaols in Great Britain, upon notice given to Colonel Munro, by Dingwall; or to John Fraser, Writer to the Signet at Edinburgh, shall receive FIVE GUINEAS REWARD. —— It is hoped Masters of ships, and others will be careful not to secrete or carry off the said slave, otherwise they shall be prosecuted in terms of law. —— If the slave himself shall return to his Master’s service, his offence shall be forgiven.[1]

This is the only documentation we have of Caesar, an advertisement written by his Master, so we don’t know how his story ends. Working on the Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth Century Britain project, Caesar’s is the kind of story we encounter again and again. The enslaved and bound people of colour in Britain did not leave much evidence behind: often the ‘runaway’ advertisement is the only proof we have of their existence. It is unknown how many like him did not try to escape – did not generate a trail of evidence – and thus will remain anonymous to history.

However, let’s consider what we do know. Firstly, Caesar’s Master, Colonel, later General Sir, Hector Munro was just one of a number of Scottish sojourners during the 18th century. These men – often young and single – left Scotland to make their fortune in far-flung corners of the burgeoning British Empire, some with the intention of returning home and using their new-found capital as a means of increasing their standing in society.

While many of these men went across the Atlantic, arriving in the North American colonies or in the West Indies, a smaller number chose instead South Asia; in Munro’s case, India. Taking advantage of kith and kin connections and his military nous, Munro left for India in 1761, returning in 1765 as a much richer man, with a fine martial reputation and an eye on Parliament.[2] Historians have ascertained that much of this wealth was derived from the prizes he accepted from nawabs – Indian governors – after his success at the Battle of Buxar: could Caesar have been just another spoil of war?[3]

Sir Hector Munro, by David Martin (1785).
Could this be Caesar in the background?

Certainly, Caesar’s advertisement raises more questions than it answers: after his escape did he return to Munro, expecting the forgiveness promised by his Master? Did he manage to evade capture in the vast Highlands, or seek out a ship at nearby provincial ports?

Careful analysis of these 135 words can reveal a surprising amount. The very act of running away represents an accomplishment in itself. Here was a young man thousands of miles from his home, with English, at best, a second language, who decided he had had enough and, despite the potential dangers, had taken charge of his situation.

Caesar’s name is itself revealing. This was not the name the young man had been given at birth, but was rather a name applied by a European master, quite likely Munro itself. The very act of renaming an enslaved person was an assertion of power and ownership. Moreover, the name itself is revealing. Well-educated British masters often applied classical names to the enslaved, and this name was surely an in-joke, for a young enslaved man so far from home was about as far removed from an all-powerful Roman emperor as it was possible to be.

Caesar, being “bred a cook”, was trained from a suitable age in this vocation, and may have been born into servitude in India (which had its own system of slavery[4]); his being brought to Novar House suggests Munro had taken a liking to Indian cuisine while abroad. If he had come to Scotland with Munro then, Caesar arrived on these shores as a 19-20 year old, and then waited five years before something happened that made him decide to escape.

Tkaen by Sylvia Duckworth

Novar House today.
(Click here to view on Google Maps)

We do know that a successful escape would not have been easy – historians cannot be certain on the racial mix of eighteenth-century Britain, but it was certainly unusual to see an Indian in the Highlands, and Caesar would have stood out immediately.

However, though the chances of triumph may have been slim, Caesar did have some things going for him.

According to the advertisement, Caesar left on the 11th of June, which meant he had close to the longest nights of the year to make his way around the countryside, and he was only around 8 miles from Dingwall, the (still) busy market town, where he may have found transport towards more populated places such as Aberdeen.[5]

A view overlooking Dingwall.
Novar House lies ahead, 8 miles away.

We can fairly safely assume the advertisement was placed on the 21st, to appear in newspapers published on the 22nd, which means the time between the escape and the placing of the advertisement was ten days. This suggests that Munro either thought Caesar would return, perhaps not even actively searching for the first few days, or had failed to have him captured; only after return or recapture appeared increasingly unlikely did he advertise, hoping that people further afield might spot and capture his former cook.

That Munro advertised in the Edinburgh press and also offered a contact point in the capital suggests he feared Caesar made it as far as the Central Belt which, with a ten-day head start, was more than feasible.[6] Munro’s warning to ships’ captains highlights his concern that Caesar, like many runaways in similar situations, may have made for a harbour – perhaps to make for India, or find work on the ships that were always desperate for sailors, including cooks, or simply to increase the distance between himself and his ex-Master. He could have headed for Glasgow, which did a roaring trade with the Empire on vessels bound for destinations across the Atlantic, Asia, the Mediterranean and Continental Europe; or Edinburgh, which accommodated ships travelling down the Eastern side of the country to London (such as The Diligence) and sometimes further afield (The Mally was leaving Leith for Gibraltar on the 25th June).[7]

The final line of the advertisement is especially intriguing:

“If the slave himself shall return to his Master’s service, his offence shall be forgiven.”

Munro was one of the very few Masters who appealed directly to the runaway – had he given up hope of capturing Caesar? Or was he, now Member of Parliament for Inverness burghs, keen to portray himself to the wider audience as a benevolent and forgiving Master? Either way, this sentence implied that Caesar may have been able to read, and that his Master thought he might see the advertisement; or perhaps that Munro suspected that others were aiding or concealing Caesar and that they might see the advertisement and communicate this message to the runaway.

Finally, Munro labels Caesar’s escape an “offence” – the offence being that he stole himself away. Caesar, like many of the non-white, unfree labourers in Britain in the first three quarters of the eighteenth-century, was regarded as property, and by running away he, and hundreds like him, were judged to be stealing their Master’s property – themselves.


Nelson Mundell.

PhD candidate on the project (and former pupil at Dingwall Academy).


[1] Caledonian Mercury, 22 June 1771, p.3, from

[2] G. J. Bryant, ‘Munro, Sir Hector (1725/6–1805/6)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 (accessed 17 Oct 2017).

[3] Andrew MacKillop, ‘The Highlands and the returning Nabob: Sir Hector Munro of Novar, 1760-1807’, Emigrant homecomings: the return movement of emigrants, 1600-2000, ed. by Marjory Harper (Manchester: Manchester University Press), p.239.

[4] Gwyn Campbell, ‘Slavery and other forms of Unfree Labour in the Indian Ocean World’, in Slavery & Abolition, Vol. 24 No.2, pp.ix-xxxii.

[5] Summer Solstice is usually June 20th-21st every year.

[6] Caledonian Mercury, 22 June 1771, p.3; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 22 June 1771, p.3.

[7] The Diligence would “sail [to London] the first opportunity the wind and weather, after the 20th June. See Caledonian Mercury, 15 June 1771, p.3.

The ‘Slave Auction’ & teaching slavery sensitively

It wasn’t too long ago that I found myself at the always engaging “What’s Happening in Black British History” conference. During an excellent presentation by Justice 2 History, in which they covered some of the problems they had faced in London classrooms on the teaching of slavery, one of the presenters, a young man from inner London, explained that during his placement he had wandered over to the walls and looked at the displays created by the class. On a poster that collected the generalised end products of slavery, he noticed a subheading titled, something similar to, “how did slavery benefit black people?” Naturally as he recounted this story the audience were all quite shocked and, caught up in the moment, someone declared “if this is what is happening in London schools, what is the teaching around the rest of the country like?”

Irascible with back pain, and slightly weary of the London-centric focus during the conference, I was quick to jump to the defence of my colleagues, explaining that the slave trade is a very popular topic, especially North of the border, and many teach it extremely well. (Furthermore, it cannot be assumed that teaching is worse the further its distance from the metropolis!)

A recent news story reignited, for me at least, this debate around sensitive handling of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Rochester Grammar School in Kent was accused of trivialising the sale trade

An image of the worksheet used by the Kent Grammar School. Credit: Facebook/Remi Okukoya

The Telegraph carried a story where a grammar school had asked students to buy slaves, focusing on the physical characteristics and cost of the enslaved. The exercise was meant to introduce the students to the economics of the slave trade, by asking them to step into the shoes of slave traders and purchase the ‘best’ slaves for the plantations/companies. A local businesswoman, and presumably a parent, posted this on Facebook which brought this misguided lesson to the wider attention of the public.

The Telegraph story was then submitted to a Facebook group, where the discussion showed clear divides on whether the Slave Auction activity constituted a good method of teaching. Ian Phillips, an educationalist based in England, added to the discussion by posting two excellent links to further the conversaion, and pointed out that such an activity:

[is] a-historical at best and insensitive at worst. Would you re-enact an Auschwitz selection asking which of the following Jews you would select for slave labour… The problem with the Slave Auction activity is that it is undertaken from the perspective of the Slave Owners and Slave traders and the voice or perspective of the people who were slaves is either overlooked or they are portrayed as anonymous victims.

The topic didn’t engage many in the group and this, I think, partly indicates the lack of a deeper understanding in the UK’s teaching industry around race and the issues that surround it. In Scotland, for example, our general profession is struggling to attract ethnic minority teachers, and most classrooms in Scotland have a white majority, and so the issue of racism and its impact upon students is rarely taught in any detail to practitioners. In a wider sense, though our society at large is seen as more tolerant and left-wing than our American cousins, race is still a topic that few would profess true understanding of, never mind having engaged in critical dialogue around.

But this must change. To paraphrase a great man, if there is no struggle, there is no progress, and the struggle here is realising that we are using outdated and unfit ideas to teach lessons.

One of the links Phillips provided leads to an article by Dr Kay Traille, which discusses the affect teaching of slavery can have upon black students. This, based upon work for her thesis, highlights some worrying concerns. She starts by noting from Husbands and Pendry that “[w]ork in history education may have under-estimated the extent to which children’s capacity to respond to historical tasks is affected by issues of emotional and affective maturation“.1 Students of African-Caribbean descent, she found, “felt implicitly and explicitly negatively stereotyped by teachers and peers because of their black heritage“.2 Something that we should do before we go into detail on the topic of the Atlantic Slave Trade is explain that slavery is a major phenomenon throughout all human history, not just something that happened in the New World, nor one limited to our period of study. This positioning allows the students to understand it as the ages long human problem it is, rather than solely one of ethnicity, an issue than can occur if it is taught in a vacuum.

A great video for this is “The Atlantic Slave Trade – Crash Course”, with the (energetic!) presenter providing an excellent overview, but also importantly putting it into the larger context.

A couple of non-teachers were flabbergasted when I spoke to them about the slave auction lesson. One suggested that teachers should feel ashamed and embarrassed by teaching such a lesson. In response, I offered that I know as well as any teacher the constraints that their job places upon them too – little money, time or resources to do more than keep heads above water, especially in the inner-city schools. Any Continued Professional Development is usually spent undergoing courses selected by the department head, or focused on learning the most recent changes to the examination system.

We all teach for different reasons – some teach for the joy of educating children and young adults; others love learning the content and historical facts; there are those that enjoy facilitating in the growth of the next generation and representing a pillar of society. These usually direct how we spend our fleeting spare moments – researching recent historical discoveries; creating new and exciting lessons to engage the pupils; giving our time to the school sport’s team or band.

So I find it hard to feel ashamed at these teachers’ ignorance on the topic. They are not the ones that have used their spare moments to research race and its impact on schools as I know other teachers have. But many of them will have spent their time on other areas that benefit their pupils.

“some teachers are creating contexts of misunderstanding, hopefully not because they set out to alienate, but because they are probably unaware or do not understand”3

These sound like excuses, and they are not meant to be. What I am trying to say is that guilt or embarrassment are unhelpful emotions here, and not something we should foist upon teachers. We shouldn’t shame people for not knowing something they have never been questioned on. Instead, the focus should be on moving forward and improving lessons for the next time it is taught. But, as one colleague commented “[i]f a forthright lesson on slavery cannot drive home the objectification, commercialization and degradation of peoples in the name of economic growth and cannot elicit response of understanding, shock and empathy then it just illustrates that we have not begun to tackle Britain’s slave history and the racial biases still embedded in society.”

All it takes is a ten minute read of Traille’s piece to realise why teaching a lesson like the slave auction is wrong, and Professor Simon Newman offers another perspective:

I think one of the problems to point out is not simply that the classroom activity takes the perspective of slave traders and owners and once again silences the voices of their victims. It is that whatever the intentions of teachers, in an age when business studies courses use ‘The Apprentice’ in their teaching, then whatever the intentions of teachers, pupils are going to regard as successful their planning of trading in human flesh. The pupil who picks ‘best’, and gets most people alive to the plantations and sells them at the highest prices is the ‘winner’. For all that lessons about the economy of the slave trade are important, it is very hard to prevent this lesson assuming different shapes and significance in young minds, with humans becoming the objects of a Monopoly like exercise. What are the unintended, perhaps even subconscious lessons this may teach young people about the objectification of people by skin colour?

Dylan William had written a piece just as I was entering teaching, where he explained that most teachers would not adapt their practice after the first two-three years: that many were simply repeating what they had learned, term after term, year after year. We can’t be like that. We need to take advantage of the excellent links we have built with the academic and heritage communities, amongst ourselves, to keep pushing forward and providing our children with the best education possible.

It is time that local councils, national teacher unions, and here in Scotland organisations such as the Scottish Association of the Teachers of History, offer courses that explain how racially sensitive topics in the classroom can impact upon students of ethnic minorities, and then provide ways to teach various aspects of race in a manner that excludes no-one and benefits everyone.

Until then, I would urge colleagues to continue the discussion, however awkward or hard that may be, and read Dr Traille’s important document, which can be downloaded with her permission, here; and Ian Phillips article looking at History and Maths, here. More articles on black history in schools can be found here.

Nelson Mundell.

PhD candidate on the project, and former history teacher.

1. Husbands, C. & Pendry, A. ‘Thinking and feeling: pupils’ preconceptions about the past and historical understanding’ in Arthur J. & Phillips R. (Eds) Issues in History Teaching London (2000), p.132.
2. Kay Traille, ‘Teaching History Hurts’, Teaching History 127 (2007), p.32.
3. Ibid., p.34.

Slave ‘Merchant City’

I’ve been working with Glasgow Museums on the ‘Hidden Legacies’ project and we spent an enjoyable afternoon taking a tour through imperial Glasgow exploring the city’s historical connections with New World slavery. The city’s imperial connections have been historically celebrated in George Square, home to many statues of imperialists as well as the City Chambers.City Chambers Built between 1882 and 1888, the City Chambers is civic demonstration of Glasgow’s claim to be the ‘Second City of Empire’. Looking closely at the triangular facade on the front of the City Chambers, Queen Victoria sits atop a series of native peoples bringing gifts: the subservient role of the colonies inscribed into the city’s architecture. Above the triangular façade celebrating imperial exploitation, three statues that symbolise truth, justice and liberty hint at the hypocrisy of the imperial mentalité. The City Chambers’ architecture, therefore, reflects  Glasgow’s status as one of the most prominent port cities of the Second British Empire. The city was part of a wider imperial network – based on New World slavery – that connected North America and the Caribbean with Scotland at least from the 1620s to 1838. However, there has been no adequate explanation of the nation’s spectacular rise from one of the poorest nations in western Europe after Darien fiasco in the mid-1690s to nineteenth-century industrial powerhouse. Capital derived from exploitative and usurious activities in America, the West and East Indies all played a role. Although Scotland had limited involvement with direct slave trade voyages (known as the ‘triangular trade’) and there were only 31 recorded between 1706 and 1766, the merchants of Glasgow traded in slave-grown produce. In effect, the merchants cut out the Africa leg of the triangular trade and went directly to the plantations. In this way, Glasgow merchants came to monopolise the trade in tobacco and sugar, although the latter to a much lesser extent. This article examines the city’s connections with New World slavery through the urban heritage, focusing on the men who made it possible: Virginia merchants, known as ‘the Tobacco Lords’ and West India merchants, known as ‘the Sugar Aristocracy’.

From George Square we travel south-west into the ‘Merchant City’. The Cuninghame Mansion – now The Gallery of Modern Art – was built by William Cuninghame, one of the four main ‘Tobacco Lords’ during Glasgow’s ‘golden age of tobacco’, 1740-1790.GOMA Completed in 1778 and built in the Palladian style of architecture, it was described at the time as one of the most fantastic houses in the west of Scotland. The core of the mansion became the Royal Exchange in 1827-29. Across to Ingram Street and further south, we arrive at Tobacco Merchants House which is located at 42 Miller Street (laid out in the 1750s). Tobacco Merchants House illustrates the living conditions of a ‘Tobacco Laird’, a colonial merchant lower down the economic rung from the elite ‘Tobacco Lords’. TMHBuilt in a Palladian style and completed in 1775, Tobacco Merchants House is the oldest surviving building in the ‘Merchant City’ which also underlines little remains of Georgian Glasgow and the city centre is almost all Victoriana.

From the bottom of Miller street, we arrive onto the main thoroughfare, Argyle Street, and travel into the heart of mercantile Glasgow. Arriving at the Trongate (passing the site
of two now demolished Palladian townhouses, the Shawfield and Virginia Mansions), the Tolboth Steeple is a reminder of the once bustling commercial centre. TolboothThis was the site of the Tontine Rooms (which sat next to the Tolbooth Steeple) which served as the social and commercial headquarters of mercantile Glasgow. The city’s first paved street was located outside the Tontine Rooms and this was where the ‘Tobacco Lords’ convened. Resplendent in their scarlet cloaks, scarlet cloaks and gold-tipped canes, these tobacco merchants bestowed upon themselves the regal sobriquets: ‘Princes of the Pavement’ and ‘Tobacco Lords’. Here they might have discussed the price of slaves in Africa, the growing conditions of tobacco in Virginia, the sugar crop in Jamaica and the tobacco market in France. This was the rise of early-modern capitalism in the west of Scotland based on the exploitation of enslaved labour. And make no mistake, the ‘Tobacco Lords’ were fearsome capitalist competitors who monopolised the trade in slave-grown tobacco from Virginia, which was shipped to Europe (especially France) via Glasgow. From the Trongate, we walk down to St Andrews in the Square. St Andrews in the SquarePresbyterian ‘Tobacco Lords’ attended to their spiritual needs and the Kirk was constructed between 1739-1756. The interior is an exemplar of mercantile splendour: the salubrious surroundings (now restored to their former glory) are enhanced by the mahogany imported from the Spanish West Indies. Further south, we arrive at St Andrews by the Green completed in 1751-2. This was the worshipping place of the Episcopalian faction of the ‘Tobacco Lords’: Presbyterians looked down on their mode of worship which involved organ-playing during services, which led to the pejorative nickname the ‘Whistling Kirk’ for St Andrews by the Green. StAndrewsbytheGreenThe establishment of the Whistling Kirk was inextricably associated with Richard and Alexander Oswald, Caithness merchants who established a mercantile dynasty in Glasgow from the 1710s.

This short trip ends at The People’s Palace in Glasgow Green. Glasgow Museums are currently working through how to better represent New World Slavery within their collections (a process stimulated by the important Georgian Glasgow exhibit in 2014). The People’s Palace already has some important exhibits.Collar,3 The slave collar owned by John Crawford reveals that Scots used instruments of subjugation (most likely worn by enslaved people) in Scotland. This was not a unique case and there are other records providing more detail. The People’s Palace also holds the Glassford Family portrait which was painted in 1767 by Archibald McLauchlan of the Foulis Academy (associated with Old College, now the University of Glasgow). It features John Glassford – one of the four main ‘Tobacco Lords’ in Glasgow – and his family located within The Shawfield Mansion, the prototype colonial townhouse in the ‘Merchant City’ which was built in 1711. GFPOn Glassford’s right hand shoulder, there is a young black child, evidently a page-boy who had been brought over the colonies. Given Glassford’s strong connections with Virginia (and his agent Neil Jamieson was involved with slave-trading in North America) we can make assumptions about the boy’s origins. However, we know little of his life. It was assumed until fairly recently that the young child had been painted out from the painting in the abolitionist period, although a restorative project in 2007 revealed the young child had not been painted out, but in fact dirt and grime built up over the years and partially obscuring the child from view. Glasgow’s full role in New World slavery can be viewed metaphorically in the painting: it has always been present, yet obscured from our view. Although the fate of the young black child in the Glassford painting is unknown, we have records for some others, many of whom ran away from their masters.

The Runaway Slaves project at the University of Glasgow is uncovering new details about the black population of Scotland and England during the period 1700-1780. In Scotland, there are only around 70-100 recorded black people during this period. Many ran away thus inadvertently generating details of their lives particularly through newspapers in which masters placed what were essentially lost property adverts. There are also three famous court cases: Jamie Montgomery (1756), David Spens (1769-1770) and Joseph Knight (1774-1778) which provide further details. Many resisted and rebelled against oppressive conditions in Scotland and flight was one means to do this.

This short tour through imperial Glasgow winded through the ‘Merchant City’. Exactly what is a ‘Merchant City’? No-one says ‘Slave Merchant City’, or ‘Slave produce Merchant City’ so it is important to keep in mind what a ‘Merchant City’ actually was. People MakeThis article has traced locations where the ‘Tobacco Lords’ and ‘Sugar Aristocracy’ worked, lived, worshipped, convened. Some were personal slaveowners and young children would have been brought here in the 1760s. As I thought over the concept of a ‘Slave Merchant City’, I stumbled on the city’s booster slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’. And I instantly agreed. Yes, yes they did.

Dr Stephen Mullen,

Postdoctoral Researcher on the project

Twitter: @DrStephenMullen

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:

John Witherspoon, Princeton University and Runaway Slaves

A few hundred yards from the bustling centre of the New Jersey college town of Princeton is the town’s two-hundred-and-fifty-year old cemetery.

Princeton Cemetery, N.J.
Princeton Cemetery, N.J.

It is a quiet resting place for everyone from the theologian Jonathan Edwards to Vice President Aaron Burr, the man who shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Not far from these graves lies the simple tomb of John Witherspoon, who died and was laid to rest here in November 1794, seventy-one years and over three thousand miles from his birthplace in the small village of Gifford, some fifteen miles east of Edinburgh.

John Knox Witherspoon lived a remarkable life. A Presbyterian minister and theologian, he had opposed the Jacobite rising in 1745-46, and he was briefly imprisoned at Doune Castle following the Jacobite victory at the Battle of Falkirk.

Witherspoon St., Princeton, N.J.
Witherspoon St., Princeton, N.J.

Witherspoon’s first ministry was in Beith, Ayrshire (1745-58). Beith was a small market town of some 700 ‘examinable persons’ who were eligible for church membership, including farmers, labourers, and skilled craftsmen including masons, saddlers, shoemakers, smiths, coopers and carpenters. Amongst these was a young boy named Jamie, an apprentice joiner living and working under the supervision of a carpenter named Robert Morrice. Jamie approached Witherspoon and asked to be instructed in Christianity and then baptized and admitted to church membership.

Jamie had been born in Virginia, and he was an enslaved African American, the property of Robert Shedden, Morrice’s brother-in-law. Jamie’s race and status did not prevent Witherspoon from instructing the young man, and eventually baptizing him.

John Witherspoon's burial plot.
John Witherspoon’s burial plot.

Jamie assumed a Scottish surname, Montgomery: perhaps he took the surname from Elizabeth Montgomery, Witherspoon’s wife. Jamie’s owner apparently opposed the young boy’s baptism because of ‘the Fancies of Freedom which it might instill into his Slave.’ Shedden insisted that although Witherspoon had instructed Jamie, the minister had been careful to tell the young enslaved man ‘over and over again’ that baptism ‘by no means freed him from his Servitude.’

But perhaps Witherspoon had been less certain. He gave Jamie a certificate of good Christian conduct, a kind of religious passport which would enable him to worship and take communion in other churches. Such documents were usually given to people who expected to travel and live elsewhere, and shortly after receiving this certificate Jamie ran away from his master, eventually settling in Edinburgh where he worked as a joiner and perhaps even worshipped at a church in the city, until he was captured and imprisoned, where he died.

This was not to be the first time that Witherspoon would encounter enslaved African Americans. In 1768 he accepted an invitation to become president of the small Presbyterian College of New Jersey (Princeton University).DSC06774-Easy-Resize Witherspoon did much to make a success of the small and struggling college, and he is commemorated as one of the university’s most important leaders. His achievements reached far beyond the small college. Arriving in the colonies immediately after the Stamp Act crisis, Witherspoon became a leading Patriot, and was elected to represent New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and an active revolutionary, Witherspoon was forced to evacuate the College of New Jersey when the British army captured the town late in 1776. He supervised the repairs of Nassau Hall thereafter, and in the summer of 1783 the college briefly served as the capital of the new American republic.

Slave ownership was common in New Jersey, and pervasive in the Southern colonies. Witherspoon supported himself and his family with a small New Jersey farm, but much of the labour on the farm was furnished by enslaved men and women who he owned. At his death Witherspoon’s estate included two enslaved people, human property that he willed to his heirs. Indeed, in 1790 Witherspoon voted against a plan for the gradual abolition of slavery in New Jersey, although this may have been because he thought the plan ill-conceived rather than because he opposed the freeing of slaves.

John Witherspoon provides a good example of the complexity of slavery in eighteenth-century Britain and America. An educational reformer, and an exponent of Scottish moral sense philosophy, Witherspoon may well have felt a natural opposition to slavery. As a young minister, he may have been heartened by Jamie Montgomery’s Christianisation: it was surely the first time that he had helped a heathen, as he would have seen the young man, become a God-fearing Christian. Perhaps, too, Witherspoon knew that he was helping the young Jamie prepare to seize his own freedom.

Yet in America Witherspoon would himself own slaves, and he did not become a vocal opponent of the institution. Did this mean that he had become as pro-slavery, and perhaps even as racist as many white Americans? Perhaps, and it is hard to reconcile his slave-ownership with his earlier interactions with Jamie Montgomery. But we do not know the nature of Witherspoon’s relationship with the African Americans he owned. Did he instruct them in Christianity, and did he foresee an eventual life of freedom for them and their descendants? It is all but impossible to know what Witherspoon really thought about African Americans and about the institution of slavery.

Not far from John Witherspoon’s grave in Princeton Cemetery is the last resting place of James Collins, who died in 1902. James_Johnson_AC67_BoxMP4Johnson was born a slave in Maryland in 1816, but he ran away in about 1843 and changed his name to James Johnson, making his way to Princeton where he made a living working in the university. However, he was recognised and his master alerted, who promptly instituted a law suit to recover his escaped property. The Fugitive Slave Act would have required Johnson’s return to slavery in Maryland, but a wealthy Princeton resident named Theodosia Prevost intervened and purchased Johnson’s freedom. Grateful to his benefactor, Johnson slowly repaid her with the price of his purchase, and he continued making a living as a janitor and used clothing salesman, before securing the right to sell food and drink to students on the college campus. For the rest of his life he sold food and drink from a barrow to Princeton students, including at college football games. When he died, after more than sixty years of living in Princeton, university students clubbed together to purchase a memorial stone which lies atop his grave to this day, commemorating him as ‘the students’ friend’.

In the 1750s as a young minister John Witherspoon had befriended a young enslaved man in the middle of Ayrshire, welcoming him into the minister’s congregation, and whether intentionally or not, helping the young man in his plan to run away and secure his freedom. Today, more than two centuries later, Witherspoon lies at rest only yards from the grave of another runaway slave, a man who was supported in his escape by the students of the college Witherspoon had done so much to develop. As with so many British Americans, Witherspoon’s relationship with and attitudes toward slavery is complicated, and it is in these complexities and contradictions that we can come closer to understanding how and why racial slavery existed as it did in America and Britain more than two centuries ago.

Simon P. Newman

Final image credits: James Johnson and unknown young man, c.1890. Historical Photograph Collection, Individuals Series (AC67), Box MP4. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.




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)