Tag Archives: parasite

Runaway Slaves


 Advertisement for a runaway from PortCities Bristol

I have to thank a member of the Jamaica Colonial Heritage Society for drawing my attention to a new transcription of advertisements for runaway slaves taken from Jamaican newspapers between 1718 and 1795, and from Workhouse Lists between 1773 and 1795. The list has been edited by Douglas B Chambers of the University of Southern Mississippi and was published in February 2013. There is also a list covering nineteenth century advertisements. The background to the project Documenting Runaway Slaves can be read here.

I wrote recently about the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website and the usefulness of the compensation records in tracking enslaved Jamaicans and their owners around the time of emancipation. This latest source gives a different kind of insight into slave life in Jamaica and enables us to associate the names of some slaves with their owners and the estates they had run away from.

There is a world of suffering encapsulated in a few simple lines in most of these advertisements, some of which were placed by owners wanting to trace their missing ‘property’, and others by people who had found or captured runaways and were advertising for their owners to come and claim them. Such a claimant was expected to pay the expenses of keeping the slave, and usually the owner offered a reward for the return of a runaway. A standard amount seems to have been one pistole, a Spanish coin current in Jamaica and worth in 1774, when Edward Long published his History of Jamaica, 17 shillings and 4 pence Sterling or 1 pound 5 shillings Jamaican. Relative to average earnings now that would be equivalent to about £1260 sterling – a not insignificant amount (source: http://www.measuringworth.com ).

It was sometimes easier for a slave to disappear in Jamaica than, say, the southern United States. Not only was there a large and fluid population in Kingston, and a significant number of free negro and mixed race creole Jamaicans, but the geography of the island meant that disappearing inland was also possible. One condition of the peace treaty with the Maroons, who after 1738 lived freely in their own territory, was that they should capture and return any runaways. This measure was included in order to ensure that their presence did not encourage slaves to run away. Many of the workhouse records say ‘brought in by the Maroons’. Leaving the island altogether would have been much harder. Even the white colonists had to have permission to leave, in order to prevent the escape of criminals or those with unsettled debts.

The advertisement above is fairly typical, giving the name of the runaway and the place he has left. It was also regular practice to describe the clothes worn (one poor man had been found with none!) and any ‘marks’ – these might be tribal scars indicating the area of Africa from which the person had been taken, or smallpox scars, damage due to tropical ulcers, Guinea worm parasites or infection with yaws. All such marks would make the person easier to identify and make it harder for them to avoid recognition – there can have been little concealment for the man described as missing half his nose. Above all, most were branded with the initials of the estate they belonged to, or perhaps those of a previous owner.

Opportunities for escape sometimes presented as a result of trust earned, perhaps taking letters to another town or estate, and in many cases the person had skills which the owner valued but which might help the escapee earn a living – carpenters, printers, a saddler and a cook are among those listed. Reasons for running away were of course varied, saddest in many ways are those who are said to be heading for another estate where a wife, husband or child was enslaved, for they were probably among those most likely to be caught as a result.

Some captured slaves were reported to speak no English and their chances of escape must have been very slight, they were probably fresh off the boat and as yet ‘unseasoned’. A surprising number of those detained said they did not know who owned them – but then if they were new arrivals why would they? Most had some clothes, but were unlikely to have any others they could change into to help them disappear. In 1816 a sixteen year old boy was described as having been wearing ‘sheeting trowsers, york-stripe jacket and a new striped holland shirt’. A century earlier Nanne was described as having a white petticoat, an osnaburg jacket and a white handkerchief. Osnaburg was a coarse, hard-wearing fabric originally made of flax from Osnabruck in Germany and which was commonly used for slave garments. By the mid-eighteenth century most of what was imported into Jamaica was probably woven in Scotland.

One interesting aspect of the records is that in many the height of the person is recorded – few are taller than 5’7″ and some as small as 4’6″. There were those who when captured claimed that they were in fact free, but without proof of it they had no hope – ‘says he is free, but has no documents thereof’. Occasionally such a claimant would name a witness who could attest to the fact that he was free.

Very few of the slaves in these records have a surname, and if you are looking for your family history it will be much easier to use them to track slave owners than the enslaved. But if you do know which estate an ancestor belonged to, or who the owner or managing attorney was you may be able to extend your knowledge of your family history using these records. They provide another very valuable resource for historians of slavery and of Jamaica.