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A guest post by Jordan Smith
For many US-based academics, late February/early March marks the one-year anniversary of our last taste of normalcy. We were still teaching in person, without masks, and many of us had begun planning our summer archive trips. February was, I believe, when I learned that I had received a Folger Institute Research Fellowship—I was already planning to bring back “Pie Tuesdays” at the butcher shop right next to the Kew Gardens tube stop. February also marked my last in-person research presentation before life as usual was disrupted. An audience member asked whether enslaved rum producers ever labored in England in the eighteenth century. I had found no such evidence, I told him, but maybe I would find some this summer in England.
Of course, “this summer in England” never happened for me. I’m incredibly grateful that the Folger Institute continued to support my research and made it clear that they recognized that the scholarly process would take a much different form than usual. In my case, that meant acquainting myself with the many digital databases that have been unveiled in the last several years that are available to users for free. One of them—Runaway Slaves in Britain—allowed me to still seek out a more satisfying answer to that audience member’s question.
I had already encountered a small but growing scholarship on the coerced labor exacted from African-descended people in Britain. At least 14,000 Africans lived in London by 1770. Although their labor was most visible in domestic settings, coerced laborers of African descent also served in various trades in England, Scotland, and Ireland throughout the eighteenth century.1
Prior to 1730, men of African descent could formally apprentice with London tradesmen and even attain the status of freeman. However, in that year a Barbados-born man of African descent named John Satia completed his apprenticeship with a London joiner. While Satia was granted freeman status, the Lord Mayor of London resolved to keep that accomplishment from becoming precedent. On September 14, 1731, he declared “that for the future no Negroes or other blacks [were] to be suffered to be bound apprentices at any of the companies of this city to any freeman.”2 This ruling foreclosed the opportunity for enslaved and formerly enslaved people to complete formal apprenticeships in England’s capital, but some young bondsmen continued to train in these workshops.
Thanks to Runaway Slaves in Britain, I now know that this trend applied to the distilleries and cooperages of Britain as well. In fact, the only references that I have found of enslaved alcohol and barrel makers come from the runaway advertisements compiled in this database. At least three men of African descent liberated themselves from British distilleries over the course of the eighteenth century. In 1760, John York, a twenty-six year old man bearing country marks who spoke halting English, escaped from John Harland’s London malt distillery.3 Fifteen years later, the eighteen-year-old black distiller’s apprentice John Otley eloped from another London distillery.4 Though Otley was listed as an “apprentice,” and his escape occurred three years after the Somerset decision made slavery legally unenforceable in England, historian Simon Newman suggests that enslavers could coerce labor from these “servants” through “the memory and the threat of a return to colonial slavery.5
An additional total of at least eight men trained or training as coopers—barrel-makers whose vessels were crucial for storing and moving rum—left their enslavers in Britain during the eighteenth century. Many of these coopers came from Britain’s American colonies. A sixteen-year-old man of mixed-race descent named Matthew Natwit had been born in Jamaica.6 Caeno, “brought up in Philadelphia [and] by trade a cooper,” escaped the bonds of slavery in Cork. Cupid, a cooper who had been born in Cape Fear, North Carolina, left his master in Greenock, Scotland.7 The descriptions of Caeno and Cupid suggest that their apprenticeships had taken place in North America, providing further evidence of the mobility of skills often associated with the production of rum.
In other cases, enslavers elsewhere sent bondspeople to Britain to undergo formal training. Almost 80% of the bondspeople listed for sale in British newspapers were between the ages of 1 and 17.8 While many of those children were sent to Britain to perform household work, enslavers sometimes apprenticed out young men who they claimed ownership over. For instance, in 1752, a merchant named Robert Shedden purchased a young man named Jamie in Virginia and sent him to Beith, Scotland to apprentice as a joiner with his brother-in-law. He paid an apprenticeship fee of £40 in addition to two shillings per week to cover expenses. Four years later, when Shedden deemed Jamie’s training to be complete, he tried to send the young man back to Virginia. Jamie ran away, briefly finding work as a journeyman in Edinburgh, before being captured and ultimately dying in a Scottish jail.9 It is possible that some enslaved distillery workers followed a similar path.
On other occasions, governors of the Cape Coast Castle—a British slaving fort on the coast of West Africa—sent company slaves to London to apprentice in a variety of trades.10 One of those men, Quashy, escaped from the London cooper he was training under in 1736. Trying to entice him to return, his enslavers promised that he would be “sent home to his own Country directly” if he turned himself in.11 Perhaps the Royal African Company believed that Quashy had already acquired enough skills to help them package and dispense rum and other liquid commodities at the time of his escape.
Through their actions, self-emancipating slaves in Britain provide insight into how distillery workers may have thought about their enslavement. Jamie, for example, had no interest in being compelled to return to Virginia. He likely enjoyed a freedom of movement and a standard of living in Scotland that he knew would not be replicated in the Chesapeake.12 A man named Harry went so far as to state that he was “not willing to return to his native Country, Antigua” in 1771.13 These same calculations may explain why an unnamed cooper fled his enslaver in St. Kitts in 1762, seeking refuge in an English city.14
The substantial free black population in Britain made it possible that these men could live undetected as free people.
Other bondspeople no doubt experienced the profound dislocation of being forced to a foreign land thousands of miles from their friends and family. Perhaps that explains why the creole blacksmith Peter escaped London on a fleet headed to the West Indies, why an enslaved sailor named Joe worked to “ship himself for Carolina,” or an unnamed fifteen-year-old boy moved from Bristol to London, hoping to “embark for Jamaica.”15
Relocating to Britain improved the lot of some enslaved people, while leading others to emancipate themselves.
There are several important implications of these findings. The fact that Britons sought apprenticeships for enslaved people shows that slavery entailed the appropriation of intellectual work every bit as much as it stole the physical labor of the enslaved. Furthermore, these patterns of exploitation were not limited to overseas colonies. Many of the systems and commodities used to amass great wealth—including rum production made possible by chattel slavery—also had local histories in England and Scotland.
As with so many fruitful research trips, this collection of advertisements leaves me with even more questions. What connections did African-descended distillers in Britain have with enslaved producers in North America or the West Indies? What were their work conditions like? How did they think about the work they completed and the terms of their coercion?
Maybe I will find these answers in London, this summer or next.
Jordan Smith is an Assistant Professor of History at Widener University and teaches classes on the history of early America and the Atlantic world. He is writing a book that examines the invention and production of rum in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world.
- Gretchen Gerzina, Black London: Life Before Emancipation (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995); Catherine Molineux, “Hogarth’s Fashionable Slaves: Moral Corruption in Eighteenth-Century London,” ELH 72:2 (2005), 495-520 (statistic comes from 497); Britain’s Black Past, Gretchen Gerzina, ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020).
- Kathleen Chater, “Black People in England, 1660-1807,” Parliamentary History 26 (2007), 79; Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber: the True Story of the Jamaican Slave who became Samuel Johnson’s Heir (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 76-77.
- “Eloped Yesterday Evening,” 10 May 1760, Public Ledger, 2.
- “Whereas John Otley,” 29 March 1775, Daily Advertiser, 2.
- Simon Newman, “Freedom-Seeking Slaves in England and Scotland, 1700-1780,” English Historical Review 134:570 (2019), 1137.
- “Whereas Matthew Natwit,” 24 March 1738, Daily Advertiser, 2.
- “Run Away, From Cork,” 16 November 1764, Williamson’s Liverpool Advertiser, 2; “Run Away from his Master at Greenock,” 31 August 1756, Caledonian Mercury, 4.
- Stephen Mullen et al, “Black Runaways in Eighteenth-Century Britain” in Britain’s Black Past, 84.
- Mullen, “Black Runaways,” 88-95.
- Simon Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 148-9; Newman, “Freedom-Seeking Slaves,” 1159.
- “Whereas a Black Lad,” 20 April 1736, Daily Advertiser, 1.
- Gerzina, Black London, 29-35.
- “Eloped this day from his Master’s Service,” 17 April 1771, Public Advertiser, 3.
- “Run Away,” 23 January 1762, F. Farley’s Bristol Journal, 2.
- “Absented from Mr. William Lewis,” 20 December 1759, Public Advertiser, 3; “Ran away from his Master,” 5 January 1744, Daily Advertiser, 2; “Whereas a negroe boy ran away,” 23 July 1728, London Evening Post, 3.