Wednesday, 15 June 2005

A Note on Slavery in Early Modern England

We don't tend to associate early modern England with slavery but the fact is that slaves were very much a part of everyday life. In the 15th century, the Portugese had started using the west coast of Africa as a source for slaves and the English were soon to follow suit. By 1596 slave labour had become so popular in England, that Elizabeth I, on the basis that slavery was upsetting the labour market, decided all African slaves should be "sent forth of the land" to Spain or Portugal. By the 17th century though, many owners of colonial sugar plantations in Jamaica were bringing a few of their slaves with them back to London. The slaves were often stolen or they ran away. Therefore it would not be unusual to see an advert like this: "Lost or absented, a little negro boy of about 13 years of age in a grey livery with black and pink lace and a small cross in his forehead. He speaks Spanish and English indifferently well..." We can assume with a high level of certainty that the cross on the forehead was a brand, made by a hot iron, marking him permanently as a slave.

Slaves were treated as merchandise, commodities to be bought and sold like chattels.

In 1777 Samuel Johnson declared that "No man is by nature the property of another" and years before him, William Pitt the Elder had basically said the same thing. However, despite this, slaves for sale were still being advertised in the London press. In 1777, Boswell made a point of saying that the slave trade was a very important part of the economy and therefore must be sustained.

According to Lisa Picard, by 1764 there might have been around 20,000 black servants in London, who had left their masters and sought to be paid for their labour, just like the English servants. I wonder though if the black servants were given the same wages as their white counterparts. Considering the prejudices of the day, probably not.


Dave Heasman said...

Dr Johnson had one such servant - I believe he provided quite well for him.

Anonymous said...

"In 1777, Boswell made a point of saying that the slave trade was a very important part of the economy and therefore must be sustained."

This is a good argument for why all these "It will hurt the economy" laments you hear these days with respect to preventing global warming don't fly.

Anonymous said...

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