The Trader, the Owner, the Slave: Parallel Lives in the Age of Slavery

Nicholas Guyatt writes:

In 1659, during the last months of the Commonwealth, 72 slaves from Barbados managed to escape to London. They complained to Parliament that they had been living in ‘unsupportable Captivity’, working at the furnaces and sugar mills, and ‘digging in this scorching Island’ with only roots and water to sustain them. They had been ‘bought and sold still from one Planter to another, or attached as horses or beasts for the debts of their masters’. Many had been badly beaten. Having fled from the ‘disconsolate vault’ of Barbados, they were terrified that they might be recognised and returned to the Caribbean. ‘I am escaped,’ one said in a letter to an MP, ‘I cannot say free, but rather, as one brought over in a Coffin, out of which I may not peep, until the protection of this Parliament unlock it, and say, Arise Freeman and walk.’ This petitioner and his desperate associates were not confident that they would be vindicated in their appeals, even though they had one trump card up their sleeves: they were white.

(LRB 4 October 2007)

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