Enslaved People in Eighteenth-century Britain: An Interview with Nelson Mundell

“Slave-owner shooting a fugitive slave” (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). 

In today’s post, Keisha N. Blain, Senior Editor of Black Perspectives, interviews Nelson Mundell about the new online database, Runaway Slaves in Britain: Bondage, Freedom and Race in the Eighteenth Century. Mundell is a former History teacher with a MEd in Education and is finishing his history PhD thesis, “The Runaway Enslaved in Eighteenth-century Britain,” at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. The project’s home page can be found here, and the database here. Follow Mundell on Twitter @NelsonHistory.

Keisha N. Blain: Tell us more about the Runaway Slaves in Britain database. How did this project come about? How were you able to build the database?

Nelson Mundell: The Leverhulme Trust funded project has been led by Professor Simon Newman from the University of Glasgow since January 2015, and our database launched on June 1, 2018, after three-and-a-half years of work. Alongside Simon, Dr. Stephen Mullen and Dr. Roslyn Chapman have been key members of the team at different points, and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on it all the way through as assistant researcher and PhD candidate. I’m delighted at the range of information we’ve uncovered, and this work will permit people interested in this period to explore and interrogate new information, allowing us to learn more about the enslaved and bound people who lived, worked, and sometimes sought freedom in eighteenth-century Britain.

We spent a lot of time in archives and libraries up and down Britain, poring over microfilm and—if we were lucky—original copy, as well as taking advantage of online repositories such as the Burney Collection and the British Newspaper Archive. Once we collected as much as we could, we moved onto entering it into our online database, which we had been tweaking and rearranging as the project, and our thoughts, advanced. We are really indebted to Dr. Roslyn Chapman, who replaced Stephen for the last six months, as she took this task on and delivered wonderfully.

Blain: There are several other databases that explore the lives of people of African descent, including Freedom on the Move, Colored Conventions and African American Civil War Soldiers. Tell us more about how Runaway Slaves in Britain builds upon these databases yet further expands our understanding of the history of slavery and freedom?

Mundell: The databases you mention are fantastic collections, and we’re happy to be mentioned in the same sentence! The clear difference is that ours will provide information in a British context. The project had its motivations in examining a group of people that history has been somewhat neglected—the enslaved and bound Africans, Asians, and Indigenous Americans in Britain. The vast majority of people know that slavery existed in the British Empire, in the North American and Caribbean colonies, but many people don’t realize that there was a significant number of enslaved on our own shores too.

Blain: As you point out on the website, we know so little about enslaved people in eighteenth-century Britain. What accounts for this lack of information? How does your new database fill this gap?

Mundell: This lack of information is partly owed to the paucity of historical artifacts that were either produced then or remain today, and the ambiguous legal rulings that occurred over the eighteenth century with regards to the legal status of enslaved people both in England and Scotland. These issues certainly muddied the waters when it came to understanding the plight of the enslaved in Britain.

Some may have found it easier to focus on abolition than slavery, for one reason or another. That’s not to say individual academics haven’t written about these people before, but with the funding from the Leverhulme Trust we were able to collate many more primary sources than would have been available before, as the database now provides the largest collection of evidence of enslaved and bound people in Britain during the eighteenth century.

‘15 yo boy’, Glasgow Journal, 9 January 1746, p.4. © National Library of Scotland.

Blain: What kinds of information will people find in this new database?

Mundell: There were many enslaved and bound people in eighteenth-century Britain, but only some of them escaped, and an even smaller amount will have generated these advertisements. if they lived near a port, for example, it may have been assumed they escaped abroad already. So what we have represents what is likely a very small portion of those held in bondage and slavery in Britain. It’s the tip of an iceberg. To provide some quick numbers: we have 831 “runaway” advertisements—sixty-seven in Scotland, 764 in England; there are just sixty entries for women, and 771 for men. The youngest is a girl, Peggy, who is only six years old, while the oldest is an unnamed man aged fifty-two, who had escaped a ship docked in London.

Each record contains over fifty-five fields of information, breaking down the advertisements as much as possible to make it easy for academics and the general public to filter down the entries as they see fit. Where possible, we’ve included a picture of the advertisement, some of these are great quality, and some are snapped from a microfilm and are therefore passable. In addition to the main database, we have a separate file that contains seventy-five notices selling people into slavery.

Blain: What were some of the challenges you encountered while building this database? How were you able to overcome those challenges?

Mundell: The biggest challenge was the large number of newspaper editions and pages that we had to get through. It was clear that even if we worked 24/7 for the whole time, we would still only read a portion of the output from the eighty years we were covering. So a large amount of time went into strategies for narrowing down the search somewhat.

Optical character recognition is improving, but still has a way to go, and this meant we had to be meticulous in how we approached searching online repositories. Some of these are not conducive to large-scale research either, and this didn’t make things easier. Though some might say online repositories are preferable to microfilm reading, they both have pluses and minuses. In fact my favorite part was spending hours immersing myself in eighteenth-century life in the British library microfilms. It was just great, and something I’ll never forget.

Finally, the other challenge was trying to fit everything in. Three years was not enough time to adequately collect and analyze this set of data, these people, and regardless of my own thesis on the topic, I think there’s still lots that can be covered, and hopefully the database provides a rich opportunity for historians of various subjects to do so.

‘James Montgomerie,’ Edinburgh Evening Courant, 4 May 1756, p.3. © National Library of Scotland

Blain: How do you envision scholars using the database in their research? How might teachers use the database in the classroom? Overall, what do you hope people will take away from using the database?

Mundell: We are actually pretty excited to see how other academics draw on the information in the database. It opens up a new vein of information for academics, whether they are looking at the Black experience in Britain, the Atlantic Slave Trade, clothing, language use, newspaper advertising—there are many aspects that can be examined.

However, all of us on the team were keen to engage as wide an audience as possible with our findings, not just academics. Simon Newman has previously worked with teachers all around the world, Stephen Mullen has a great record engaging local audiences in history, and I had arrived on the back of a few years teaching secondary school history, and knew the value of accessible and enjoyable media in the pursuit of teaching and learning.

Over the course of the last three to four years, we’ve spent a lot of time connecting with teachers and pupils. We’ve held workshops in schools and at the Scottish Association of Teachers of History (SATH) conferences to highlight Scotland’s role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. We ran school workshops in Glasgow and London, and we’ve provided resources for teaching various aspects of both the Atlantic Slave Trade and the enslaved runaways in Britain.

Saying that, nothing we’ve done comes close to the potential reach of Freedom Bound, the graphic novel we produced with Warren Pleece and BHP comics. Having secured a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), we were able to ensure that a class set can be sent to every state secondary school in Scotland in the next few weeks, around 12,000 copies.

It’s our hope that Freedom Bound can help teachers in schools engage their classes with the history of the enslaved in Scotland, and by extension Britain, encouraging an interest in history and perhaps impetus to undertake further research in their local area. At the back of each book there are copies of the primary sources the stories are based on, as well as further information of different aspects of the Atlantic Slave Trade, and we hope it can be a valuable teaching resource for years to come. Over the next academic year I’ll be looking for schools that would be interested in further workshops in both history and English classrooms, so we can witness how pupils engage with Freedom Bound, and then evaluate its impact.

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Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.