The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ads for runaway slaves in British newspapers show the cruelty of the ‘genteel’

An ad from the June 22, 1771, Edinburgh Evening Courant seeking a runaway slave is part of a project to bring attention to slavery in 18th-century Great Britain.

When an 18-year-old slave named Ann ran away from her master in 1727, the newspaper advertisement seeking her capture said she was wearing a brass collar that read, “Gustavas Brown . . . his Negro.”

When 16-year-old Quoshey fled on Christmas Day 1700, the ad in a local paper said he had “E.A.,” the initials of his master, “Capt. Edw. Archer,” branded on his left chest.

And when Colling, a “Congo negro,” escaped at midnight from the ship Hannah in 1767, the notice in the Daily Advertiser told readers that he had the number 19 “marked” on one of his shoulders.

These would have been routine notices in the United States during the era of slavery. But these ads and about 800 others like them have been gleaned from newspapers in Great Britain.

They are part of a first-of-its-kind database called “The Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Britain”  project, which was launched June 1 by Simon P. Newman, a University of Glasgow professor who is an expert in U.S. history and Atlantic slavery.

“Although British school pupils study the transatlantic slave trade, there is a general understanding of racial slavery was something that happened ‘over there’ in the Americas,” Newman said in an email.

“Few people in Britain think about British ownership of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people, or the fact that some of those Britons brought some of these enslaved people back to Britain,” he said.

Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833, three decades before it ended in the United States in 1865. Nearly 4 million slaves lived in the United States before the Civil War, according to the Economic History Association.

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The peak number of slaves in Britain is hard to pin down, Newman said. Slaves came and went on ships, and few records were kept. In 1768, an abolitionist estimated that there were 20,000 black servants and slaves just in London, he said.

Many of those worked in the homes of the wealthy as servants, and were usually said to be well housed, clothed and fed, the project’s website said.

But sale and shipment to the colonies always hung over their heads. One slave, facing shipment to “the Plantations,” hanged himself.

When an enslaved man named Jack fled in 1704, his master placed an ad that said Jack had a collar around his neck (“unless it be filed off”) that read, “Mr. Moses Goodyeare in Chelsea his Negro.”

Twelve-year-old Quavo was wearing gray clothes trimmed in green with brass buttons, and a steel collar that said he belonged to “Mr. G. Woodcraft, Attorney at Law” when he ran from his master in 1718.

And an unnamed “Gold Coast Negro” had the letter R, described as a “plantation mark,” branded on his left shoulder when he escaped in Liverpool in 1738.

Most slaves seem to have slipped away unnoticed. They rarely “escaped,” in the advertisements. They “eloped,” “absconded,” “absented,” “deserted,” or “left.”

One, being “close pursued,” dropped a bag he was taking as he ran away in London in 1755. Another, John Fortune, 22, left “without his shoes or hat” when he fled in Liverpool in 1770.

In all cases rewards, and sometimes forgiveness, were offered for their return.

“We combed through tens of thousands of issues of 18th-century English and Scottish newspapers” in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool, Oxford, and Edinburgh, Newman said. The database was three years in the making. (Similar databases exist in the United States — in Virginia, North Carolina and Texas, among other states.)

“Showing British people the existence of these records, and encouraging people to think about their significance, was our primary aim,” Newman said.

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He noted that the advertisements also present mini-biographies of people who were otherwise anonymous. Some slaves spoke little or no English, but French, Spanish or Portuguese instead. Some were skilled at trades or played a musical instrument, such as the violin or French horn.

Masters were sometimes baffled at their slave’s flight.

Take Squire Walker’s 14-year-old “black Negro boy” who escaped in London on May 31, 1756.

He had fled “without the least provocation,” the squire’s ad in the Public Advertiser read the next day. “Born in his house . . . handsome, strong, and well built . . . christen’d by the Name of Thomas Walk, kept at School to learn to read, write and Cypher, at great expense,” the ad continued. He had even made off with the “Gold-laced Hat that I used to wear.”

Master Patrick Burke also was dismayed by the flight of his slave, Jeremiah, in March 1769.

“As the said Negro knows his Master’s Affection for him, if he will immediately return, he will be forgiven,” Burke’s ad in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette said. 

“If Freedom be what he wishes for, he shall have it, with reasonable Wages; if he neglects this present forgiving Disposition in his Master, he may be assured that more effectual Measures will be taken.”

On March 11, 1767, Pickering Robinson, of London’s Spital Fields neighborhood, advertised the flight of his “Negro man, named JOSEPH ROBINSON.”

Joseph, his master noted, could write and had been purchased in 1760 in Georgia from “Governor Ellis” — probably the Irish-born former slave trader and explorer Henry Ellis, who served as Georgia’s second royal governor.

As for the slave collars and brands, Newman said, “I suspect even more of these people were marked in such ways, including whip scars.”

“In a place like Jamaica or South Carolina or Georgia a master might not hesitate to place an advertisement describing a runaway bearing marks such as these,” he said. “But in Britain . . . it became rather more difficult for masters to feel comfortable advertising in this way.”

“Racial slavery with all of its violence was not an everyday . . . occurrence in Britain as it was in the colonies,” he said. “And masters in Britain were understandably reluctant to draw attention to their own violence.”

Read more Retropolis:

‘My mother was sold from me’: After slavery, the desperate search for loved ones in ‘last seen ads’

‘Barbaric’: America’s cruel history of separating children from their parents

An archaeological dig unearths one of the earliest slave remains in Delaware

Lost slave freedom papers tell of the tortuous paths out of bondage