Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London


Simon P. Newman, University of Glasgow and University of Wisconsin

A Guinea Negro boy, about 8 years old, named Jack, straight limb, no mark in his face, in a black cloth suit and a black Serge frock ...
London Gazette, 9 June 1690

Jack was one of more than two hundred enslaved people who escaped from their enslavers in London during the second half of the century. There were no doubt many more, but we know about these few because of advertisements like these that appeared in London’s newspapers, the first ‘runaway slave’ advertisements to appear in England or the colonies, many of them young boys like himself. The large majority of these advertisements identified freedom seekers who were male and young: almost 85% were male and more than half were teenagers or younger. Most were African although one-fifth were from South Asia.

But what can we know of somebody like Jack? This is perhaps the only surviving evidence of his life and all that it appears to tell us is that he was African, about 8 years old, straight limbed with a clear face and dressed in a smart black livery. The description of Jack having ‘no mark in his face’ suggests that many of the other young enslaved Africans in London bore ‘country marks’, ritually inscribed scars on their faces, upper arms and torsos. Suggesting that Jack had ‘strayed’ the advertisement implies that this child may have lost his way rather than escaped. But Cross Lane was no more than a few dozen yards in length, and while a child who was a stranger in the city might easily lose his way beyond the lane, while there he would always have been in sight of his enslaver’s house. Perhaps he had run because of punishment or for any of a host of reasons that are obscured by the word ‘strayed’. And given the value of a young enslaved boy he might also have been taken. A young boy born in West Africa who had endured the Middle Passage and now found himself in London far from family and home may have run away in desperation, with no clear idea of where he might go and what he might hope to do.

Jack had left the house of his enslaver in Cross Lane which lay a few hundred feet north of the quay just east of London Bridge, at which all of the ships coming in from the colonies were required to unload their cargos. It was an appropriate address for his enslaver, for Peter Paggens was one of the city’s leading Huguenot merchants, a man who had begun as a ship captain bringing tobacco from the Chesapeake to London but who then became one of the capital’s leading tobacco merchants. He had expanded his trading interests to include enslaved people and between 1699 and 1706 he was the co-owner of at least 26 ships which undertook trans-Atlantic slave trading voyages, almost all of which delivered enslaved people to Jamaica. At his death, Paggen left his wife £10,000 worth of stock in the United East India Company (the Dutch East India Company) and the Bank of England. Having already provided one daughter with a dowry of £16,000 he provided £10,000 of stock in trust for a second daughter. His daughter Catherine’s second husband was Sir Humphry Morice, a leading London slave-trader and Governor of the Bank of England.

Unknown artist, Elihu Yale; William Cavendish, the second duke of Devonshire; Lord James Cavendish; Mr Tunstal; and an Enslaved Servant, ca. 1708. Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Andrew Cavendish, eleventh duke of Devonshire.

The trade in enslaved people and the crops they raised had made Paggen an extremely wealthy man, and as such an attractive, well-liveried enslaved boy who attended him was exactly the kind of status symbol that men like Paggen enjoyed, flaunting both their wealth and its human source. It is far more difficult, however, to even imagine how Paggen’s display of success and wealth felt to Jack, an eight-year-old emblem whose life and personality were stripped away in the few words of an advertisement and an anonymizing uniform. He was less a person than a ‘Guinea Negro Boy’, an adjunct to his master rather than an individual. Stripped from his mother, his family and his culture at an extremely tender age, where might he possibly have found comfort, friendship and love? In Paggen’s household he was valuable property rather than a family member. While we associate the violence and savagery of racial slavery with the plantations that were fast growing in England’s Caribbean and North American colonies, slavery in London may have been just as traumatic for isolated African and South Asian children.


Freedom Seekers: Escaping from Slavery in Restoration London
is published by the University of London Press


About the Author:

Simon P. Newman is a historian of the early modern Atlantic World, and he has worked on popular political culture, the lives and bodies of the poor, and racial slavery. He created the Runaway Slaves in Britain resource and his article ‘Freedom-seeking slaves in England and Scotland, 1700-1780’ (English Historical Review, 2019) was awarded the Sutherland Prize by the American Society for Legal History. He is emeritus Professor of History at the University of Glasgow and is now a research fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *