Our research proves just how widespread slavery on British soil really was
When the UK’s involvement in slavery is publicly discussed, it’s often from a position of looking at how it unfolded in former British colonies. But there are numerous resources that continue to prove the opposite.
One of them – Runaways London, a new project from literature charity Spread the Word, in partnership with the University of Glasgow where I am Director of the Beniba Centre for Slavery Studies, and Ink Sweat & Tears Press shows just how close to home the legacy of slavery really is.
Research on enslaved people who were brought to Britain by myself and slavery scholar Professor Simon P. Newman shows that Black servants and entertainers were employed by royalty and nobility as early as the 16th century.
As participation in the transatlantic slave trade was encouraged, slavery on British soil not only occurred, but grew in popularity. Leaving poor and working-class men to oversee estate management, many planters often returned to Britain with enslaved domestic servants. According to Historian Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, wealthy families came to view Black servants as “fashion accessories”.
The existence of enslaved Blacks on British soil was justified as early as 1729 by semi-legal confirmations that an enslaved person’s status was transferrable across geography. Therefore, whether in the presence of his or her legal owner in the colonial Americas, Britain or elsewhere, the enslaved were still bound as chattel.
Being the UK’s capital city, London’s urban population was and continues to be the most populated in the country. While the minority of bound and enslaved labourers in London were of South Asian descent (from countries known today as India and Pakistan) and an even smaller number from indigenous American groups, the majority were of African descent either via the continent or the British colonial islands of the Caribbean.
By the late 18th century, the Black population of London was estimated to be between two and four per cent. Historians have not yet tallied historic Black populations in other parts of the UK, (if at all possible to know as so many lived and worked as fugitives). While there were enslaved and bound labourers forcibly working throughout the UK, the highest number of runaway adverts were in and around London.
For contemporary comparative reference, ethnicity statistics based on the 2011 Census (updated in 2018), estimates Black British citizens of African and/or African Caribbean ancestry stand at three per cent of the total UK population.
Professor Newman has spent the better part of a decade working with other scholars, researching the lives of Black and South Asians bound and enslaved labourers who sought to achieve freedom in Britain. Their work culminated into a publicly accessible database, Runaway Slaves in Britain: Bondage, freedom, and race in the eighteenth century with the University of Glasgow that allows anyone to search and learn from hundreds of slave runaway advertisements published in newspapers across the country. Newman’s more detailed study on Black freedom seekers of the 17th century will be published in February 2022 by University of London Press.
While the legal ownership of Black bodies, stripped of choice and humanity, underpins both slavery in the Americas and in Britain, there were important differences. It’s generally understood that life under slavery in the Caribbean was a special kind of hell on earth. Violent punishments and torture were everyday occurrences. There were nearly no exceptions made for gender or age.
Even if one disregards harsh working conditions on plantations, rendering the average slave life span to six years, life was too often made all the more painful and shorter by medical problems like dysentery and numerous tropical and infectious diseases. Harsh working conditions on plantations rendered the average slave life span just six years, and life was often shortened even further by dysentery and numerous tropical and infectious diseases.
However, those forced to labour in Britain were not brought to cultivate agrarian-based commodities for export. In general, they occupied various servile positions in port towns such as Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow, where quite a few worked as sailors. In London, working near or on waterways was an important occupation as the Thames did and still serves as the city’s most important aquatic vein for trade, travel, and transportation.
These enslaved and labour-bound servants worked in the homes of the affluent but also ran errands in public or served at the slaveholder’s side during business meetings. Although their contributions have been largely forgotten or unknown to contemporary public memory, their presence is still visible, for example, in the paintings of the elite class.
Despite their confined and degrading status, enslaved servants often contested the efforts to strip them of their humanity. Some acts were small: feigning illness or becoming forgetful; losing and destroying their slaveholder’s important objects; running late for errands. Bigger acts of resistance were found in runaway slave advertisements, which demonstrated enslaved people’s rightful audacity to resist bondage and take their own lives back from “masters” and “mistresses”.
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When an enslaved person summoned the courage to run away from captivity, slaveholders posted ads in newspapers with descriptions of the freedom-seeker and often a reward to the subscriber if the servant was found and returned. Such historic sources are notorious for whitewashing in terms of misrepresenting slavery or failing to record events, particularly when one is in search of the experiences and lifeways of the enslaved and the subjugated. That’s because the historiography of slavery includes primary sources, original documents created, written, and published by people in power.
These documents promote and centre the experiences and perspectives of plantation owners, slaveholders, colonial administrations, European colonial lawmakers, merchants, slaving ship captains and crew etc. These were people (predominantly white men) who had the power to racially violate, control, and traumatise enslaved and bound labourers and render them as victims. And this violence extends to documents associated with very rare opportunities for the enslaved to respond with literary agency.
With the exclusion of the very few slave narratives and rare testimony provided by non-whites, the archive of slavery throughout the Atlantic world, regardless of any European country, marginalises the voices and (at worst) the existence of enslaved people altogether.
Despite the paucity of surviving information about freedom seekers, however, some descriptions in runaway advertisements give us a glimpse of what the enslaved looked like through lists of physical characteristics: height, weight, visible marks upon their bodies, etc. How well they spoke English, if they were multilingual, and what they last wore before absconding towards freedom.
We may never know how many failed to escape and were re-captured, then sent to their deaths on Caribbean plantations. Nor will we know if many were successful in their quest for autonomy. But what the hundreds upon hundreds of runaway advertisements over the decades certainly tells us, is that Black resistance was always a part of slavery as much in Britain as it was in the Atlantic colonial world.
We may never know how many runaway enslaved people were in the UK in the 17th and 18th centuries, but numerous clues show a number attempted to seek freedom in the capital