Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London 
by Simon Newman.
University of London, 260 pp., £12, February, 978 1 912702 93 0
Show More
Show More

On Valentine’s Day​ 1661 Elizabeth Pepys and her husband, Sam, rose early and walked from their house behind the Tower of London down Seething Lane. They were to visit one of Sam’s superiors, William Batten, surveyor of the navy. The custom was that women should take the first man they saw as their Valentine, so long as he was no relation. The previous year, Elizabeth had selected her own beau; this time it was all planned to further Sam’s new career as clerk of the acts to the Navy Board. Elizabeth was to be paired up with the elderly Batten; Sam was assigned to Batten’s daughter Martha. He knocked at the front door, ‘but would not go in till I had asked whether they that opened it was a man or a woman’. From behind the door, ‘Mingo, who was there, answered “a Woman”, which, with his tone, made me laugh.’ Pepys didn’t bother in his diary to explain who Mingo was but evidently they knew each other.

A few weeks later, Pepys stayed out late at a tavern, having ‘a great deal of mirth’, singing and making music with the Battens and another Seething Lane neighbour and Navy Board superior, William Penn. He was having such a good time he even danced – ‘the first time that ever I did in my life – which I did wonder to see myself to do’. He also recorded another surprise: ‘we made Mingo, Sir W. Batten’s black, and Jack, Sir W. Penn’s, dance, and it was strange how the first did dance with a great deal of seeming skill.’ Mingo and Jack lived very close to Pepys. They worked for his colleagues, accompanied them everywhere, ran errands for them, slept under their roofs. Pepys must have encountered them all the time. But this is the only time Jack appears in the diary, and almost the last time Mingo does.

Four years later, Batten made his will. He left £10 each to three household retainers, including ‘my servante Mingoe, a Negroe that now dwelleth with mee’, to whom he also bequeathed the keepership of the new lighthouses at Harwich, with the decent salary of £20 per annum. It was a position of great trust, since it came with the responsibility of collecting tolls from every passing ship on behalf of Lady Batten – amounting to several hundred pounds a year, the only source of income she would have as a widow. When Batten died, in 1667, Mingo presumably came into this inheritance. It looks like a happy ending. But what was the beginning?

There are some obvious clues. Penn had commanded the fleet that captured Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655 and Batten’s brother-in-law had spent time there. English merchants already had considerable experience of trafficking humans directly from Africa. ‘Procure as many hides, [elephant] teeth, and wax as you can,’ the Guinea Company instructed one of its captains embarking for the Gold Coast in 1651, and also ‘buy for us 15 or 20 young lusty negers of about 15 years of age, bring them home with you to London.’ Among the aristocracy and gentry, it had become fashionable to be waited on by dark-skinned boys and girls. A year after he admired Mingo’s dancing, Pepys noted in passing that his patron, Lord Sandwich, had acquired ‘a little Turk and a negroe’, who were to be made to work as pages for the earl’s daughters.

English involvement in transatlantic slaving expanded significantly during the 1660s, under the enthusiastic leadership of the new king, Charles II, and his brother, the future James II. In 1665, it was James’s eagerness to capture Dutch slave-trading forts on the West African coast that set off the second Anglo-Dutch war. In the last quarter of the century, English ships carried almost 300,000 African captives to the Americas. These new colonial ventures helped to power a rapid increase in London’s size and wealth. The city’s population tripled between 1600 and 1720 to more than 600,000 people. Its docks grew busier, its fleets larger, its merchants ever richer. Between the 1660s and the 1680s, imports of sugar from West Indian slave plantations into London tripled in value; every year, two thousand ships queued up to offload cargo from around the world. It was only the beginning: by the 18th century, the British led the world in buying and selling enslaved human beings, using their forced labour to underpin a global system of racialised capitalism and imperial power.

In September 1665 the banker Robert Viner gave Pepys a tour of his palatial mansion and proudly showed him a cadaver: ‘a black boy that he had, that died of a consumption, and being dead, he caused him to be dried in an oven, and lies there entire in a box’. On another occasion a group of sea captains assured Pepys from personal experience that black corpses ‘look white and lose their blackness’ when drowned at sea. Pepys, the future president of the Royal Society, records this as a piece of interesting scientific trivia, acquired on ‘a fine pleasant walk’ from Greenwich to Woolwich. He doesn’t feel the need to explain what kind of cargo these captains carried, or why they were used to seeing such corpses. Both in its silences and its matter-of-fact glimpses of enslaved people, Pepys’s diary is representative of most of the surviving written evidence concerning this era of English slavery. This is not a neutral archive: it records only what enslavers chose to set down, perpetuates their dispassionate perspectives and erases their victims all over again.

Black and brown men and women were by the later 17th century hardly an uncommon sight in London, especially in the East End, with its mariners and merchants. Miranda Kaufmann’s Black Tudors (2017) tells the stories of free Africans living in England: John Blanke, the royal trumpeter; Edward Swarthye, the trusted upper servant of a leading Gloucestershire landowner; Cattelena, an independent Black ‘singlewoman’ living with her cow in the village of Almondsbury, near Bristol; Reasonable Blackman (or Blakemore), a successful silk-weaver in Southwark, who worshipped at St Olave’s church, and whose children, Edmund and Jane, died in the plague epidemic of 1592. In his pioneering Black Lives in the English Archives (2008), Imtiaz Habib similarly uncovered hundreds of men and women of colour working alongside and marrying white Londoners between 1500 and 1677.

Some of these people were evidently independent, well-off and confident in legal matters, like the ‘blackamore’ Martin Francis, who in October 1658 sued three Shadwell women after they defrauded him of £7 – a sizeable sum. But many more ‘belonged’ to others, through ties of servitude or bondage. Even fairly modest households relied on menial servants, and wealthier ones, like those of Pepys and his colleagues, showed off by dressing their servants in distinctive liveries. In the spring of 1669, when Sam and Elizabeth unexpectedly needed a new cookmaid, a friend with surplus ‘blackmores’ helped them out, lending them ‘Doll’, ‘who dresses our meat mighty well, and we mightily pleased with her’.

Within a few years, Pepys himself took ownership, for the first but not the last time, of a ‘small Neager boy’. This child had been kidnapped in Africa, and survived the horrors of the Middle Passage on a Dutch slave ship before being brought back across the Atlantic as the property of an English naval officer. By the time he arrived in England, he had already spent a year in captivity, most of it at sea, enduring one unfathomably traumatic experience after another.

Like his peers, Pepys acquired and discarded such people without the slightest qualm. In 1688, by now rich, powerful and middle-aged, he found himself fed up with his latest Black youth’s ‘lying, pilfering, drinking, takeing Tobacco in his bed & being otherwise mischeivous’. For such transgressions, a white servant would simply have been let go. But not in this case. First, Pepys tried whipping the young man, then he put him in fetters. Finally, as secretary of the Admiralty, he had him forcibly imprisoned on a warship about to set sail. ‘Keep a strict hand & eye upon him,’ he told the captain, give him only ‘short and hard’ rations on the voyage, and then ‘dispose of him in some plantacion’ in the West Indies, and ‘invest the proceed of him … in whatever you please.’ Even as he condemns this young man to certain death, Pepys never names him: he is simply ‘my Negroe’.

It’sonly recently that historians have begun to do justice to such facts. Traditionally, slavery has been seen as tightly bound to America and the Caribbean, separate from the identity and experiences of the people who lived in the British Isles. It was something that happened in a different physical, legal and moral world – a ‘colonial’ not a British phenomenon. Since 2009, the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL has been leading the way in dismantling that myth, by demonstrating domestic complicity in West Indian slavery, right up to its hard-fought, piecemeal abolition during the 1830s – not just through sugar consumption or investment in colonial enterprises, but the direct ownership by people across Britain of hundreds of thousands of men and women who were worked to death across the seas on their behalf.

Large numbers of enslaved African and South Asian people were also brought to Britain and Ireland, where they were publicly bought and sold. Until rulings in the 1780s brought its legality into question, this was not a controversial practice. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the saviour of English liberty, William of Orange, was grandly attended by ‘two hundred Blacks brought from the Plantations’ in America, dressed in plumed livery and made to work as grooms. Over the following decades, many hundreds of Britons advertised in newspapers for the recapture of Black and brown slaves who had escaped. As in the colonies, they were appealing to a public – and a legal system – that took racialised bondage entirely for granted.

Simon Newman’s new book takes this story back to its origins in late 17th-century London, the birthplace both of large-scale English involvement in transatlantic slavery and of the first popular printed English newspapers and advertisements. As colonial historians have long appreciated, ‘runaway slave’ adverts provide the best surviving evidence of the appearance and individuality of large numbers of enslaved people. They also testify to their continual defiance of captivity. Yet these notices, and the networks of communication they reinforced, were themselves instruments of bondage. One of Newman’s many achievements is to show that this tool of enslavement was invented and refined in England long before it was adopted across the Atlantic. Between 1655 and 1704 (when they began to appear in the first colonial papers), more than two hundred such adverts were placed in London.

The notices suggest that most enslaved Londoners in this era were young – at least half in their teens or even younger – and overwhelmingly male. Perhaps a quarter of them had been transported from India or the East Indies. The rest were African; sometimes, like Pepys’s boy, they had survived the Middle Passage and then been sent back across the Atlantic from the Americas. About half of the escapees fled from rich families in the City and West End, many of which had colonial connections. Most of the others had got away from ships and maritime communities along the southern and eastern reaches of the Thames. Some had absconded from further afield: Ipswich, Plymouth, Bristol, Wrexham; Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Sussex, Hampshire. Enslavement and attempts to escape it were ubiquitous.

To address the great void at the heart of the historical archive – the experiences of enslaved people themselves – and to expose the problematic nature of the surviving evidence, Newman follows Saidiya Hartman, Marisa J. Fuentes and other recent scholars of slavery who have turned to techniques of ‘critical fabulation’ and ‘counter-history’ to fashion narratives about the enslaved which are based on archival research but refuse to be limited by it. As Hartman has written, their intent ‘is not to give voice to the slave, but rather to imagine what cannot be verified … to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance’, and to destabilise the authority that the enslavers’ sources themselves project. The aim is to write ‘a history of an unrecoverable past … a narrative of what might have been or could have been’. Instead of adopting the viewpoint of the white makers and readers of the evidence on which it draws, Newman’s book therefore allows us to see through the eyes of the Yoruba-speaking teenager ‘Ben’, freshly on the run in March 1686, as he navigates the crowded streets of the City, pretending to be on a routine errand for his master. We glimpse a nameless twenty-year-old African woman, ‘marked with a P and a B on her back’, who sought her freedom in the spring of 1684; and Quamy, or Kwame, a ten-year-old Black boy who early in 1693 made his escape from the City mansion of a family of rich Caribbean merchants and plantation owners. We catch sight of ‘An Indian Black Girl, aged about fifteen, with a Brass Collar about her neck’, as she gets away from the East India captain who has been keeping her at his lodgings in Rotherhithe.

Along the way, Newman explores the work that these men and women were made to do, as domestics, cabin boys, sailors, messengers, pages and personal attendants; the families who held them in captivity; the chains, manacles and collars that kept them in their place; the branded and mutilated faces, noses and ears that testified to their previous resistance; and the humming networks of English commerce, social life and print, by means of which they were hunted down when they tried to flee. The language of the adverts shows how normal, indeed respectable, all this was. One advertiser casually specified that his missing servant had been ‘bought at Bantam in the East-Indies’; another that his slave had ‘a brass Collar about her Neck, with this Inscription, John Campion at the Ship-Tavern at Ratcliff Cross, his Negro’. The engraved collars with which rich Londoners fettered their attendants were identical to those they used for their pet dogs.

Concepts of skin colour, race and slavery were less fixed during this period than they were to become in the following century. Most strikingly, before the 18th century, absconded Black and brown Londoners were sometimes described in print as ‘servants’, but never as ‘slaves’ – even when they had manacles around their throats and letters branded into their flesh, inscribing their status as human property. With one single exception, ‘slave’ does not seem to have been a term ever applied to any of the hundreds of people designated as ‘Moor’, ‘Black’, ‘Negro’ or ‘Indian’ in English parish records before 1700, even though many of them were evidently unfree.

What​ was it like to be a young, enslaved person, kidnapped and trafficked to London at the end of the 17th century, and held captive among strangers thousands of miles from home? Understandably, Newman keeps returning to this question, and to the impossibility of hearing the voices of the enslaved. Sixteen-year-old ‘Edward Francis’, seized in Africa and taken to England, tried repeatedly to escape from his captor, Thomas Dymock, the keeper of the royal lions and tigers at the Tower of London. Francis didn’t speak much English, and his work with the wild animals – kept shackled and confined, like him – was exhausting and dangerous. In 1687, he fled but was retaken after Dymock offered a reward of two guineas for his capture. Then, in 1691 and 1692, he repeatedly put rat poison in the family’s food, eventually killing Dymock’s wife (and cat) and almost finishing off the lionkeeper. The records show that ‘another Black called Tom’, who lived nearby, had advised him on which poison to use. When Dymock realised what had happened and asked, ‘What hurt have I don to you that you should be soe bloody to me to kill me?’, Edward fell silent: what could he possibly say? Dymock asked again: ‘Did you thinke to geet your Liberty by Killing me?’ – to which ‘the Black said “yes”.’

Freedom Seekers is a triumph of inventive and accessible scholarship. But although Newman has done remarkable work uncovering intriguing and troubling newspaper evidence, he might have made more use of another new genre of late 17th-century metropolitan print, the monthly reports of criminal trials and executions that were published from the 1670s onwards.

In the autumn of 1724, most London newspapers reported the trial and execution of a young servant for ‘willfully burning and robbing’ the house of his mistress, Mrs Elizabeth Turner. The criminal was variously described as ‘Julian the Black’, ‘Julian the Black Boy’, ‘a Negro Boy’, or ‘the Blackamoor’ – though by the time the news reached Newcastle, he’d become simply ‘Julian Black’, punished for ‘firing and robbing’ his employer’s house. The separately printed trial report was very brief. The jury was told that ‘Julian’ had confessed to taking ‘twenty or thirty guineas’ and setting fire to the house, with the intention (which had failed) of killing everyone inside. It’s a clear example of the problems of the archive: all these accounts portrayed the case as the straightforward, cautionary tale of an unreliable, thieving servant.

But it wasn’t. Strangely, especially for a capital case, Julian didn’t himself testify in court. Just as oddly, he’d thrown the coins away. Why? We only know because, after his death, the chaplain of Newgate prison made some money by publishing a brief narrative of this servant’s life. ‘Julian’ was in fact from India: he’d been born in Madras. He thought he was about sixteen. He had been ‘stollen away from his parents’ when ‘very Young’, brought to England by a Captain Daws, ‘his first Master’, and there ‘presented’ to Mrs Turner. He may have already been captive for more than a decade, trapped inside her house in the village of Sudbury. He never learned to speak English. Like a pet animal, he was kept to amuse his jailors, ‘being frequently call’d in to Dance about, and to Sing after his Manner’. The main fear he had developed was of being ‘tyed up and Whip’d’.

After his conviction he spent almost a month in prison. At first, he uttered only ‘incoherent, vengeful words’, then the chaplain instructed him in Christianity, baptised him ‘John’ and asked him if he wanted to become a Christian. At this point, for a fleeting moment, his own thoughts break to the surface of the record: ‘he answer’d yes, demanding if he was then to become Free?’ His body, shackled for weeks in irons, finally gave up: his legs became so swollen he couldn’t move. He begged his cellmates for a knife to kill himself with, but even that freedom was out of his reach. After he was hanged, his corpse, ‘almost torn in pieces’ by the attending crowd, was taken away, to be cut up as dissection practice by the local barber-surgeons.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences