Category Archives: Bristol

Runaway Slaves

It has been a while since I blogged anything related to Scotland and the Caribbean. A lot has changed in the last year. 2014 was a momentous year for all; the Commonwealth Games reminded everyone why Glasgow is the best city in the world, the referendum woke many Scots up to reality, and on a personal level I submitted a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Glasgow. I spent a great three years (and one month) immersed in the lives of Glasgow-West India merchants, planters and sojourners, 1776-1846. I enjoyed the process immensely and I’ll be disseminating the findings very soon. I’ve since moved into a new but related area and I’ll take this chance to plug the new project I’m working on for the next few years.

I’m now part of a research project examining the social history of self-liberated, formerly enslaved black people in Great Britain. The formal title is ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain: bondage, freedom and race in the eighteenth century’. Twitter:  @runawayslavesgb The project is based in History, School of Humanities at the University of Glasgow. This is the perfect project for us all at this stage. On a personal level, I have been criticised to my face (most recently at an N.U.J. conference in the Mitchell Library in October 2013) that my research focused on slave-owners but did not examine the lives of the enslaved themselves. This period of research allows me to rectify that.

There were many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ‘black’ runaways in Great Britain in the Eighteenth Century. Many were of African descent, some were Native Americans and others were from India. There is some debate whether this group were actually enslaved in Britain at all (there were white runaways escaping from servitude too) although it is clear the group under consideration in our project occupied an ambiguous position. In many cases, they were described as ‘slaves’ and were most certainly in bondage. Many had been trafficked from the New World to Great Britain where they were bought and sold as labourers to work without remuneration. Some were kidnapped and sent back to colonies such as Jamaica without their consent. In any case, this ambiguous status was addressed in two landmark British legal cases: Somerset v Stewart in England in 1772 and Knight v Wedderburn in Scotland in 1778. The Mansfield Decision, although hardly equivocal, certainly had an impact at home and abroad. Joseph Knight, an African, was held in servitude in Scotland after he made the journey from Jamaica with his owner, a Scottish plantation owner. After reading of the Mansfield decision in an Edinburgh newspaper, Joseph subsequently challenged his own unfree status in 1774. The resulting legal case laid out a very famous ruling in Scotland four years later:

That the State of Slavery is not recognised by the Laws of this Kingdom, and is inconsistent with the principles thereof and Found that the Regulations in Jamaica concerning slaves do not extend to this Kingdom and repelled the Defender’s Claim to perpetual Service. (National Records of Scotland, CS 235/K/2/2, p.32)

However, these two famous legal cases were in the last third of the Eighteenth Century – runaway advertisements were a common theme in newspapers over the previous hundred years. So, what of the lives of the unknown numbers of men, women and children who became runaways?

Newspaper advertisement reveals lots of details to the historian; age, gender, origins, diseases, bodily markings. One example – albeit in an American context, where there is a mature historiography – provides much detail.

Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.
Virginia Gazette, 7 October 1773.

The image itself (thanks to @Limerick1914  for this image) is an advertisement intended to facilitate the recapture of two runaway slaves in Surry County, Virginia in October 1773 – a year after the Somerset Case. The process began with a very public proclamation that the individuals had escaped from bondage. The master evidently valued his enslaved property so much that he advertised detailed descriptions in the Virginia Gazette and offered rewards for their recapture. The reward system ensured there was much work for nefarious hunter-capturers. Although runaways in Great Britain ran away from a very different type of bondage and to a very different type of freedom, the recapturing process would have been similar.

In terms of the runaways themselves, we learn from the advertisement that one of the runaways was female, a twenty seven year old woman named Amy, and another was male, a nineteen year old named Bachus who was born in Africa. Bacchus had evidently been subjected to the infamous ‘Middle Passage’ and had been branded on the hand, most likely on a Virginian plantation. We also learn much about the determination of the owner: he offers an incremental reward and rising expenses dependant on how far the runaways escaped.

Interestingly, we also learn about the mentalité of both slave-owner and the enslaved. According to this advertisement, there was a ‘prevalent…notion’ amongst enslaved people in Virginia that if they escaped and reached Britain ‘they will be free’, a mindset surely influenced by the Mansfield Decision of June 1772. Running away was the greatest act of self-determination, and this vexed the slave-owners as would it deprive them of their chattel property and the profits from the expropriation of labour. The advertisement ended with a typical warning: do not offer runaways passage from Virginia or offer them work within the colony. These advertisements represent both an attempt to regain immediate ownership of the enslaved property and also an attempt to limit the collaboration with the local population which could have prolonged freedom. Their fate – and whether they reached Great Britain at all – is unknown. Watch this space.

 

Further Reading

Cairns, John W., ‘After Somerset: The Scottish Experience’ (2012) Journal of Legal History, vol. 33, pp.291-312

Chater, Kathy, Untold Histories: Black People in England and Wales During the Period of the Slave Trade, c.1660-1807 (Manchester, 2009)

Myers, Norma, Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain c.1780-1830 (London, 1996)

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, (London, 1977)

Shyllon, F., Black Slaves in Britain, (London, 1974)

Walvin, J., Black and White: The Negro and English Society 1555-1945, (London, 1973)

Walvin, J., England, Slaves and Freedom, 1776-1838 (London, 1986)

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John Pinney’s Georgian House

Georgian House Museum
Georgian House Museum

This short account documents my visit to the Georgian House Museum (formerly the home of John Pinney) in Great George Street, Bristol in late 2013 (see location in Google Maps). In his classic text, A West India Fortune, Richard Pares traced the fortunes of the Pinney family who owned the plantation Mountravers on Nevis in the Leewards Islands. A younger scion of the family, John Pinney inherited a slave fortune and retired to Bristol in 1783 to live as an absentee.

A Young man, believed to be John Pinney, watches over the house
A young man, believed to be John Pinney, watches over the house

John Pinney built the house in 1790 and it has been restored to illustrate how the mercantile elite lived in Bristol as well as acknowledging the city’s historical involvement with Caribbean slavery. This website provides more detailed information.

The townhouse has eleven rooms over four floors and recreates the living conditions as John Pinney would have lived as well as his servants, including Pero, an enslaved boy brought back from Nevis.

John Pinney's Plunge Pool
John Pinney’s Plunge Pool

I imagined Pinney being served breakfast in the kitchen by servants, perhaps even Pero, before going downstairs to his plunge pool in the basement. Pinney was known to favour a cold bath every day, perhaps a habit formed in his stay in warmer climes. There were also several other rooms that evidently used for entertaining, such as the guest room, where I took an atmospheric shot.

John Pinneys Guest Room
John Pinneys Guest Room

The city of Bristol has taken steps to address their historical connections with the slave trade and slavery. The Bristol Slave Trade Action Group was established in 1996 and academics have been instrumental in transforming attitudes and promoting acceptance of the city’s colonial past. This change has been underpinned by original archival research, fieldwork on the Pinney plantations (documented by Time Team, parts 1 and 2) in Nevis as well as publications such as the Madge Dresser’s Slavery Obscured and the Bristol Museums publication Pero: The Life of a Slave in Eighteenth Century Bristol by David Small and Christine Eickelmann. A bridge named after Pero was formally opened in 1999.

Bristol Museums have been fully involved in this transformation. In addition to the Georgian House, the M-Shed documents Bristol’s slaving past including the life of an enslaved girl, Frances.

Picture courtesy of Dr Miranda Kaufmann, @MirandaKaufmann
Picture courtesy of Dr Miranda Kaufmann, @MirandaKaufmann

A plaque outside the M-Shed has also been erected to acknowledge the contribution of Africans to the prosperity of the city in the colonial period. The approach in Scotland couldn’t be more different. Whilst commemoration and acknowledgement is the way forward elsewhere, the city of Glasgow has The Merchant City.

Richard Pares- A Historian of the West Indies

ParesOne of the first blogs about the Glasgow- West India trades concerns an English historian writing about a Dorset family who had plantations in Nevis and a merchant house in Bristol. Do bear with me…

In a period of historical research, the researcher sometimes finds a historian’s work that profoundly changes the way they think about their topic. In my own research, I have been very fortunate to be metaphorically standing on the shoulders (nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) of Richard Pares CBE (25 August 1902 – 3 May 1958). Described as the ‘the outstanding historian of his time’ alongside contemporary Sir Lewis Namier, Pares continues to shape the way historians think over half a century after his death.

A West India Fortune, published in 1950, altered my thoughts about the relationship between merchants and planters and their involvement with the West Indies. Pares used a small sliver of the voluminous Pinney Collection – most of it now held in the University of Bristol Special Collections – to trace the fortunes of successive generations of the Pinney family of Dorset, who owned plantations in St Christopher and Nevis. Pares set out to ‘practice what he preached’ by producing an economic history based on primary records of a representative family and West India merchant firm (A West India Fortune, p.vii).20140224-095837.jpg In doing so, he illuminated a two century long connection with the West Indies that started with a sojourner, Azariah Pinney travelling to Nevis in the late seventeenth century and ends with John Pinney operating a successful merchant house in Bristol after the 1780s. In between, Pares produced outstanding chapters on plantation management, West India finance, shipping and debt as well as the sugar market of Bristol. The text was later complemented by a shorter article on the London-West India merchant house of the Lascelles. Fortunately, Pares had worked on the Lascelles records in London before a German air raid in the Blitz of 1940 destroyed a lot of the material (although S.D. Smith recently studied the family in much more detail in Slavery, Family, and Gentry Capitalism in the British Atlantic). In his article, Pares outlined the business as well as the dangers for students returning from the West Indies to England for education: ‘Sam could not go back to school after the Christmas period of 1755, because he had been “unfortunately drawn into the embraces of a vile wicked Strumpet who gave him the foul disease”. He was reported to be a “sincere penitent”…when he was cured and ready to return to school’. (The Historians Business, p.217).

Pares Collection
Small but invaluable Pares-West India collection

I was now hooked on Pares and the inner geek in me set out to try and acquire as many first edition as I could. Most of these are out of print, others are quite rare and all can be expensive. A retired Professor of History at the University of Glasgow gave me a pristine copy of A West India Fortune with cover, which is quite valuable to purchase but priceless to me. I also managed to acquire a signed copy of King George III and the politicians : the Ford lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1951-52 (1953), which contained a note evidently Pares note(1)written when Richard was Professor of History at Edinburgh and lived in 7 Carlton Terrace, just off Calton Hill and a short walk to the University as well as to the Scottish Record Office and National Library. In the note, Richard thanked the recipient of the book, Molly, for the almonds before affectionately signing off Richard. Pares Note2This small piece of Pares family history in Edinburgh masks a personal tragedy. Just after taking the position at Edinburgh in 1945, he was diagnosed with Progressive Muscular Atrophy, and had to retire from duties in 1954. Richard returned to Oxford where he was appointed a Special Research Fellowship at All Souls. He used his limited time to work on material accumulated before 1939, resulting in Yankees and Creoles: the trade between North America and the West Indies before the American Revolution (1956) as well as a short monograph, Merchants and planters, (1960). Still at the height of his powers, Pares used the article to re-evaluate his views on the economic relationship with Great Britain and the sugar colonies and famously stated that Adam Smith was wrong as he viewed Empire as an economic drain. The text was published posthumously after Richard died on 3 May 1958. But what a legacy.

Selected Publications (incomplete- for now)

  • Public records in British West India islands, reprinted from Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research vol. 7 (1930), pp. 149-157.
  • War and trade in the West Indies, 1739-1763 (1936, 1963)
  • The economic factors in the history of the Empire Reprinted from: Economic history review, vol. 7, no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 119-144.
  • The manning of the navy in the West Indies, 1702-63 Offprint from: Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser., v. 20, 1937, pp. 31-60.
  • Prisoners of war in the West Indies in the 18th century Reprinted from. Journal of the Barbados museum and historical society (1937).
  • Colonial blockade and neutral rights, 1739-1763 (1938, 1975).
  •  West-India fortune (1950, 1968).
  • King George III and the politicians : the Ford lectures delivered in the University of Oxford, 1951-52 (1953)
  • Yankees and Creoles: the trade between North America and the West Indies before the American Revolution (1956)
  • Essays presented to Sir Lewis Namier, Edited by Richard Pares and Alan J. P. Taylor (1956, 1971).
  • Limited monarchy in Great Britain in the eighteenth century (1957, 1967)
  • Merchants and planters, Economic History Review. Supplement 4. (1960)
  • The historian’s business, and other essays edited by R. A. and Elisabeth Humphreys; with an introd. by Lucy S. Sutherland. (1960).