The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Interview and excerpt: Simon P. Newman, Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London

At the Folger, we are proud to sponsor research inquiry within a vibrant and intellectually generous community. Periodically, as that research is published, we circle back to talk with recent authors to showcase the role of collections-based inquiry on their methods and arguments. Today, we pose a series of questions to 2018-2019 long-term fellow Simon P. Newman, followed by an excerpt from his new book, Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, published by University of London Press.

Dr. Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of History (Emeritus) at the University of Glasgow, and a research fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is currently a fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University.


When you started this research project, how much clarity did you have about what you were looking for, both in terms of number of examples and specific materials?

Dr. Newman: Before arriving at the Folger I led the Runaway Slaves in Britain research project at the University of Glasgow creating a database of newspaper advertisements seeking the return of enslaved people that had been published in eighteenth century English and Scottish newspapers. My objective at the Folger was to investigate the ‘freedom seekers’ described in seventeenth-century English ‘runaway slave’ advertisements, finding as many as I could, and then researching each one. I knew there were some but had no idea how many, but by the end of my fellowship I had located 212, all published in London newspapers between 1655 and 1704 (the very first colonial runaway slave advertisement was published in 1704).

Once you started working with the Folger collections, did your research questions change? Did your assumptions about what arguments were going to be supported by the evidence change?

Dr. Newman: In one important way my research questions did change. I had not realized how many (approximately one-quarter) of the freedom seekers were South Asian, and this required me to investigate their origins, moving beyond the African slave trade and the plantation colonies of the Americas. I think that the most important impact of the Folger collections was through my detailed examination of visual materials, primarily images and maps of London and pictures of its inhabitants, including a few images of Black people. Part of my research process was to map out where enslaved people escaped from, and the locations to which they could be returned for a reward. I was able to see the city and its streets, alleys, and markets, from the Royal Exchange to the Legal Quays where ships docked to the churches in which some of the enslaved were baptized, married, and buried. I was able to reconstruct both real and imagined journeys and experiences. Being able to look at the actual materials, rather than just digitized versions on a screen, made a huge difference.

Londinum florentissima Britanniae urbs by Claes Jansz. Visscher.

What couldn’t you find that you expected to find? Can you give us examples?

Dr. Newman: I knew that it would be almost impossible to trace the individuals described in runaway advertisements, and that was indeed the case. I had hoped to find a little more contemporary descriptive materials referring to enslaved or free Black people in seventeenth-century London, but I found very little of this kind of material. Perhaps what surprised me more was the unexpected links and connections I was able to unearth. For example, the very first runaway advertisement appeared in 1655 when an enslaved African boy escaped from Lord Willoughby of Parham, who at the time was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The unnamed boy had probably come with Willoughby from Barbados and Surinam, and I knew Willoughby through his connections to those colonies, and later to Aphra Behn. Almost certainly there was no direct connection between this freedom seeker and Behn, who at that point was only fifteen years old, but the ways in which slavery connected people across London is quite remarkable.

Head of a young Black boy in profile to right by Wenceslaus Hollar.

In what ways did the Folger scholarly community advance your work?

Dr. Newman: It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of the Folger scholarly community. Chatting with staff and researchers at tea or at colloquia or seminars enabled me to test and develop my ideas, and I hope that I was able to help others with their work. People shared both primary and secondary sources that have materially affected my research and arguments, and I am delighted to have been able to acknowledge these in my new book Freedom Seekers. I think that it is important to include the exhibition space and the theater as part of the Folger’s scholarly community. Exhibitions like “First Chefs” and the various events that accompanied it, together with several of the season’s plays helped me to think in different ways about themes and ideas within or aligned to my research.

What advice do you have for early career scholars working at the Folger or peer collections?

Dr. Newman: I would recommend presenting your research topic to the scholarly community at the earliest opportunity, so that people know what you are working on. Make clear what your questions are, and your eagerness to learn of materials that might be useful to you. The Folger’s staff are as great a resource as the collections themselves, and they (as well as fellow scholars) will be able to direct you to new and unsuspected materials. And resist the temptation to seize every moment for archival research: take breaks and have coffee and lunch with colleagues, and always go to tea. The Folger exemplifies scholarship as a communal activity.

Do you have other illuminating questions that we should be asking? (Feel free to pose and answer them)

Dr. Newman: I can’t think of any. The Folger has become one of my favourite archives, and I look forward to returning as often as I can.


Below find an excerpt from Dr. Newman’s book, Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, (University of London Press, 2022), pp.127-8.

Also attempting to escape from a London maritime community was an unnamed ‘black Girl, aged about 15 years’, who eloped wearing ‘a black Cloth Gown and Petticoat, with a brass Collar about her Neck, with this Inscription, John Campion at the Ship-Tavern at Ratcliff-Cross, his Negro’. Several of the collars described in these runaway advertisements were inscribed with wording of this kind, and not one of them named the enslaved person wearing this metal band. The writing was outward facing, invisible to a wearer who was probably unable to read the English words they could trace with their fingers but not see. The script was intended to convey information to the White English people who saw the enslaved child wearing the collar. Campion was a successful vintner, wine importer and innkeeper at Ratcliff, a block north of the Thames in the East End. His willingness to have his own name and the words ‘his Negro’ engraved on this collar speaks volumes about his acceptance of racial slavery, and his belief that fellow Londoners in the East End and beyond would see nothing untoward in this girl, her collar and his ownership of her. Yet the words tell us nothing about her, or how she felt with her throat bound by a heavy metal collar that obscured her own identity while proclaiming that of the enslaver who claimed her. While she could not see or read the words, she could feel their meaning: whatever the nature of her work for Campion, this unnamed girl sought liberty from the slavery symbolized by the collar she was wearing when she eloped.

Other collars were similarly engraved with information about the enslavers rather than those who wore them. One was a steel collar worn by an ‘Indian black Boy’ who eloped in Chelsea in 1690 and bore the words ‘Mr. Rob. Goldsborough of Chelsea in the County of Middlesex near London’, and the collar was linked to a steel cuff around his wrist by an iron chain. Toney, a sixteen-year-old ‘Negro boy’ eloped in 1690 with ‘a Brass Collar on, which directs where he lived’, while in 1664 an unnamed ‘little Blackamoor Boy’ escaped despite wearing ‘a Silver Collar about his neck, inscribed Mrs. Manby’s blackamoor in Warwick Lane’. This short road ran northwards past Newgate Market, just north-west of St Paul’s cathedral, but it is unclear whether Mrs. Manby was a householder or a businesswoman: either way, the collar clearly identified this boy as her property. Another ‘Black Boy, an Indian, about 13 years old’ eloped wearing a collar inscribed with the words ‘The Lady Bromfield’s Black in Lincolns-Inn Fields’. However privileged his position in this household might have been, especially compared to the poverty and work regimes of bound labourers in South Asia and the Americas, this young boy sought escape from a status that defined him by colour as an object, a status symbolized by the collar that marked his body as property.

Head of a Black woman with a lace kerchief hat by Wenceslaus Hollar.

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