Review: Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, Simon Newman (2022)

“A Blackamoor Boy, call’d Ben, about 17 years old, middle sized, well set (…) run away from his master Theodore Johnson Merchant (…) whoever gives notice of him to his said master, shall have a Guinea reward.” 

‘A Blackamoor Boy, call’d Ben’, The London Gazette, 15 March 1686

Simon Newman’s most recent book, Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, opens with an imagined reconstruction of Ben’s experience of escaping onto the streets of Early Modern London. In the years between 1650 and the turn of the eighteenth-century, more than two hundred runaway slave advertisements, like this one, appeared in London’s newspapers. Up until now, historians have known little of what became of these freedom seekers – their lives, their communities, and their experiences. Newman’s book attempts to reveal these hidden histories of enslaved people by examining hundreds of such runaway slave notices in England’s capital. Based on these advertisements, Newman brings to light the history of racial slavery in England as narrated through stories of resistance by enslaved peoples. Through impressive archival reconstruction, the often-silenced histories of Black individuals and communities in Early Modern England are reimagined. As such, Newman inserts a humanising element into his study. He demonstrates that enslaved peoples and their communities were present in Restoration London, and that white Londoners were intimately involved, at least to some degree, in the construction of racial slavery – a process which historians had thought to have only existed in the colonies. His book explores the individual freedom seekers, the men and women who enslaved them, London’s intricate network of racial slavery, and the meaning of their resistance, to ultimately alter our historical understanding of Britain’s colonial past.  

Freedom Seekers inserts itself within the broader historical study of Black British History – specifically, Black British history in the Early Modern period. Newman’s work is a welcome addition to this historical study, as he attempts to break down traditional dichotomies and assumed historical realities of the Black presence on British soil. England’s direct involvement in racial slavery – on English soil – has often been overlooked as a vital component in the early development of slavery and colonial practice. It has often been assumed that slavery was created and developed ‘over there’ in the colonies and ‘New World’, and that there was no such process existent on English or British land. However, Newman re-evaluates this to successfully highlight the importance of English, particularly London, society in the metropolitan creation of racialised slavery. He breaks down the metropole/periphery binaries which uphold the old historical argument and instead uses runaway slave advertisements to reveal the complex network of English merchants, captains, investors, and others who were all engaged in the creation of both the transatlantic slave trade and colonial plantation slavery ‘abroad’, and racialised hierarchy of enslaved peoples ‘at home’. Therefore, he invites us to reconsider the making of racial slavery, and the extent of Britain’s involvement in this, on the streets of an expanding London. Newman also considers the consequences of a narrative of racialised oppression such as this one and understands the subsequent creation of new binaries of oppressor/oppressed as one of those consequences. He is careful not to recreate the very hierarchies of power present in the source material he uses. The narrative of London as the site of racial slavery must not overshadow the voices and lives of those affected by this slavery: the enslaved people themselves. As such, Newman develops an historical narrative which considers the human history of enslaved individuals by placing the enslaved individuals sought in the runaway slave adverts above all.   

Before embarking on an exploration of these historical studies, Newman addresses his methodology. As the runaway slave advertisements are produced and written by white enslavers, for a white audience, they often leave very little information which historians can use. Newman’s work is part of a painstaking process to reconstruct this ignored archive and use these sources in a constructive way. He questions the value of using these sources, and how to find voices of dissent in material which seemingly aims to eradicate this very agency. Newman, alongside Dr Stephen Mullen, Mr Nelson Mundell, and Dr Roslyn Chapman, has worked on the University of Glasgow’s Runaway Slaves in Britain project extensively, piecing together a database which explores these sources. As such, his newest book is an extension of this ongoing process of coming to terms with these sources. The reconstruction of lives through runaway notices is limited, yet Newman makes clear that when examined next to each other, and alongside other records and materials, they offer insight into the existence of the freedom-seeking Black community of England. Ultimately, Newman uses a multitude of sources alongside the newspaper clippings, such as material objects and maps, to piece together an England which was brimming with racial slavery, and through this he carves out a space within Restoration London for the existence of enslaved peoples’ resistance and agency.  

Structurally, the book follows three sections: Restoration London and the enslaved, the freedom seekers, and freedom seekers in the colonies. His section on freedom seekers is most extensive, with each chapter characterised by an enslaved person and the wider theme in which their story is told. Throughout, Newman employs differing historical approaches to explore the full reach of historical realities lived and combines ideas of gender, age, Atlantic connectivity, and the body to fully examine the range and scope of racialised slavery visible in London. As such, his work successfully highlights the multiplicity and variety of agency and resistance employed by different enslaved persons in London.  

Section one, ‘Restoration London and the enslaved’, begins by framing the spatial importance of London as the site of historical examination. Newman examines a London filled with a bustling Black community alongside a London dominated by colonial trading business, white enslavers, and the printing boom. The slave trade and racial slavery permeated throughout London; there was not a societal crevice where this was not somewhat interlinked with or traced to the economy of racial slavery. Despite the racial hierarchy emerging within English borders, he asserts the importance of the enslaved London community as makers of their own lives and creators of individuality and agency. Newman seeks to further the historical importance of the existence of London’s enslaved population by reconstructing their personal histories, experiences, motivations, and attitudes. This section suggests that not only did they exist, but they spoke out. 

Section two, ‘the freedom seekers’, traces the lives of several enslaved persons and contributes the most, and is of most importance, to the book. Examinations of South Asian freedom seekers and female freedom seekers, both young and old, aid the analysis by presenting the overall variety of enslaved experience in London. Subsequent chapters also focus on the geographical specificity of London’s enslaved community, with recurring references made to London’s maritime communities, business districts, and beyond London’s walls. Furthermore, enslavers’ occupational differences and their impact upon the enslaved persons are highlighted. He speaks of integration, resistance despite all odds, and the enslaved individuals’ willingness to escape despite physical and mental constraints. Interestingly, Newman uses the body as the site of historical examination for chapters seven, eight, and nine. The body, and the material culture associated with the physical bondage of the body such as shackles, reveals both the white enslavers’ understanding of the enslaved body, and the ways in which enslaved persons were dictated to and constricted by their physical selves. Networks of colonial society are also exposed through analyses of runaway slave adverts. Londoners who brought over enslaved persons from the colonies and networks of professional and elite men and women, who directly invested in the creation of empire, are visible. Thus, Newman reconstructs London’s polite and respectable society as one intimately tied to racial slavery.  

Section three, ‘freedom seekers in the colonies’, assesses these colonial routes of slavery further, considering the importance of North America and the Caribbean in relation to London’s runaway slave advertisements. Newman argues that London’s market of runaway slave adverts preceded and allowed for the development of similar runaways’ adverts in the colonies. As such, the individuals who sought freedom in the metropole were connected in some way to the changing societal spread of runaway slave information in the colonies. Tightly interlinked networks of runaway slave codes and adverts, therefore, hark back to British soil, once again affirming that there is no dysconnectivity between racial slavery on the colonies and racial slavery in the British metropole.  

Freedom Seekers’ essential contribution is the ability to trace racial slavery onto the streets of London, not as a colonial endeavour happening ‘far away’, but as a project intrinsically linked to British individuals, lands, and history. Newman makes it clear that the runaway slave adverts are evidence of a community of enslaved peoples which existed in Restoration London, and a community which was willing to rise against mental and physical shackles enforced upon them on British soil. The reconstruction of Black British lives, and the reconsideration of how archival silences are to be understood, asserts this book as one of the most importance pieces of Black British history to date, and inserts itself nicely within existing historiography on the matter.  

Dr. Simon P. Newman is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Glasgow and senior research fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities. His book, Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London, was published in February 2022 by University of London Press.  

Written by Boryana Ivanova

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