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

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For Sale

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the presence of enslaved people in eighteenth-century Britain are the newspaper notices advertising men, women and children for sale. While many white Britons were bound labourers, required by contract and law to serve masters for set periods of time, these people were not owned by their masters, and they could not be bought or sold. However, in Britain's colonies local laws and customs recognised that enslaved people were legally the property of their owners, who had the right to sell their human property. The 'for sale' advertisements in British newspapers show that masters who brought enslaved people to Britain believed that their right to buy and sell enslaved people was not restricted to the colonies.

Covent Garden Journal (London),
15 February 1752, p.4.
Image © Burney Collection, British Library.

Arguably most striking about these advertisements is their unabashed affirmations of the existence of racial slavery in Britain. Advertisements describing livestock for sale were often close or even adjacent to these notices offering enslaved people for sale, and the language within these notices was shockingly similar. More often than not slave owners did not appear to feel at all ashamed of owning enslaved people.

Post Man and the Historical Account (London),
5 May 1705, p.2.
Image © Burney Collection, British Library.

When we read newspapers today we often notice advertisements offering all kinds of products and services for sale, and our eyes pass over these notices without really taking them in. Perhaps the people who read eighteenth-century newspapers were the same, and their eyes passed over notices offering enslaved people for sale without really noticing or caring about them. While not common (as it was in the colonies), slavery, slave-ownership and the buying and selling of enslaved people were relatively normal in the British Atlantic World, and the reader of a newspaper may well have paid little attention to these notices advertising enslaved people for sale. Newspaper editors do not appear to have had reservations about publishing these advertisements, and we have not found a single case of a reader writing in and complaining about these notices.

Felix Farley's Bristol Journal (Bristol),
16 January 1768, p.3.
Image © Bristol Library, Bristol.

The full list can be downloaded by clicking here.

'To Sell', Edinburgh Evening Courant,
18th April 1768
Image © The National Library Scotland.
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