01/06/2018
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Runaway slaves in Britain searchable database launched

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Academics at the University of Glasgow have today launched a new digital database of fugitive slave adverts from 18th-century UK newspapers, providing an insight into the lives of people who might otherwise be completely absent from historical records.

The database is a result of the Runaway Slaves in Britain project and reveals hundreds of stories of enslaved and bound people who had escaped their captivity.

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More than 800 advertisements from 18th-century newspapers were placed by masters and owners offering rewards to anyone who captured and returned the runaways. 

They represent a far larger number of enslaved and bound people, as many masters did not place newspaper advertisements, and a great many slaves and bound servants do not appear to have tried to escape.

Most runaways were of African descent, though a small number were from the Indian sub-continent and a very few were Indigenous Americans.

Newspaper advertisements

The advertisements paint a picture of the men, women and children who ran away in an attempt to be free of servitude providing a rich source of information about the enslaved and slavery in 18th-century mainland Britain.

The written notices described the mannerisms, clothes, hairstyles, skin markings, and skills of people who otherwise would have been completely absent from the official historical records of the time. The advertisements also include information about the work of the enslaved, their homes and situations, and the lives, businesses and homes of their masters and mistresses. 

An advert from the Edinburgh Evening Courant dated 13 February 1727, from The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, stated:

Run away on the 7th instant from Dr Gustavus Brown’s Lodgings in Glasgow, a Negro Woman, named Ann, being about 18 Years of Age, with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck, on which are engraved these words [“Gustavus Brown in Dalkieth his Negro, 1726.”] Whoever apprehends her, so as she may be recovered, shall have two Guineas Reward, and necessary Charges allowed by Laurence Dinwiddie Junior Merchant in Glasgow, or by James Mitchelson Jeweller in Edinburgh.

(© Special Collections/ The Mitchell Library/Museums and Collections/Glasgow Life)

Database sources

The principal sources for the project are English and Scottish newspapers published between 1700 and 1780. The database covers all the regions of England and mainland Scotland. 

Professor Simon Newman, Professor of History at the University’s College of Arts, said: “We do not have the words or sometimes even the names of bound or enslaved people who were brought to 18th-century Britain. In many cases all that remains are the short newspaper advertisements written by masters who were eager to reclaim their valuable human property.

“These advertisements are important because they remind us that slavery was routine and unremarkable in Britain during the first three-quarters of the 18th century. This is made very clear by the placement of these newspaper notices offering enslaved people for sale or seeking the recapture and return of enslaved runaways. These advertisements appeared next to the mundane and every day news items and announcements that filled the pages of the burgeoning newspaper press.

“Slavery was not an institution restricted to the Caribbean, America or South Asia, and these short newspaper notices bring to life the enslaved individuals who lived, worked, and who attempted to escape into British society.

“This is an important resource for the understanding of slavery and telling the stories of the enslaved and slavery in Britain.”

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