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


The Project

Historians know relatively little about the enslaved people who lived, worked and died in eighteenth century Britain. This project will create a database of searchable information about those who sought to escape their bondage. Not all of the the people who ran away from their masters in Georgian Britain were of African descent, and a small number were Native Americans or were from the Indian sub-continent. While some were not slaves, many were described by their masters in terms of slavery.

The men, women and children who ran away in an attempt to free themselves inadvertently generated records of themselves, their lives and their motives. To the enslaved flight represented one of the greatest acts of self-determination, and some historians have argued that runaways challenged the slave system from within and contributed to their own and others' emancipation. However, to slave-owners running away was one of the most significant threats to property, productivity and profit. Eager to recapture their valuable human property, slave-owners placed advertisements in newspapers, describing the physical characteristics, mannerisms, habits, skills and inclinations of people who are otherwise all but completely absent from historical records that treat them as property. The result is that runaway slave advertisements (and sometimes court records related to the capture of runaways) yield an unexpectedly rich source of information about the enslaved and slavery, and these sources have been collated and utilised to very good effect by historians of North American and Caribbean slavery.

The principal sources for this project will be the advertisements placed in newspapers by slave-owners. The project will also locate and make available related newspaper, legal and other materials. At the heart of the project will be a searchable database of runaway slave advertisements from eighteenth-century English and Scottish newspapers.

This project will feature a database of related sources about the enslaved in eighteenth-century Britain, as well as resources for school teachers and learners.

This project has been made possible by support from the Leverhulme Trust, and from the School of Humanities and the College of Arts of the University of Glasgow.

'Gloucester', Bath Chronicle,
10th February 1763
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