As a child growing up in the 1980s, learning about British history was mostly about kings and queens, conquerors and explorers, villains and victories. Britain was depicted as the hero and saviour of the world. The history of the slave trade and abolition is a great example of this.
I clearly remember learning about William Wilberforce and other white heroes of the slavery abolition movement. But the abolitionists were both black and white and they fought together for change. The history lessons failed to mention this. And crucially, they failed to explain that British traders enslaved and transported more African people across the ocean than any other nation.
Slavery is an uncomfortable and horrific truth. People sold as livestock into a life of punishing forced labour. And when they finally escaped this abuse, the slave masters placed adverts in British newspapers with rewards for their return. Yes, that really happened. I only discovered this recently. Take a look at the Runaway Slaves in Eighteenth-Century Britain project database. It has more than 800 newspaper advertisements placed by masters and owners seeking the capture and return of enslaved and bound people who had escaped.
As a marketer it really struck me that back in the day, I would have been a product for sale. “Female negro for sale, sturdy build of middle years, can speak good English and is obedient and able to work hard and long.” My mind of course would be of no consequence.
These adverts for slaves for sale and return are real:
Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 25 May 1765 p.2. TO be disposed of, a Creole Negro Girl, about twelve years of age; has been in England a year in an English family, during which time she has had the small-pox, can speak English very well, and is very tractable in household affairs. Please to direct or enquire at the Cherry-garden coffee-house in Cherry-garden-street, Rotherhithe, where the principal and the girl may be seen.
London Gazette, 30 December 1700, p.2. A Negro, named Quoshey, aged about 16 years, belonging to Capt. Edw. Archer, run away from Bell-Wharf the 25th Instant, having on a Plush Cap with black Fur, a dark Wastcoat. a speckled Shirt, old Callamanca Breeches, branded on his left Breast with E. A. but not plain, and shaved round his Head. Whoever brings him to Mr. Rowland Tryon in Lime-street, or to Mr. Richard Clearke at Bell-Wharf in Shadwell, shall have a Guinea Reward, and Charges.
It’s black history month and for me it’s about celebrating black lives. I didn’t plan to write about slavery, it’s a horrendous subject. But while it does not exist in the same way today, the struggle for equality still exists today. Black people still experience racial stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination.
The physical appearance or tone of voice of a black person can affect how others perceive them. For example, a tall black man speaking out confidently may be described as intimidating. A black woman passionately expressing her views may be called aggressive. So, while black people are not enslaved today, we must never forget there are people in power with preconceived ideas about who we are. And we must never allow that thinking to limit our progress. I certainly won’t.