Air Too Pure for Slavery and the Rights of British Liberty: The Black Experience in London, 1772-1883
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Dr. Marion W. Gray
Dr. Mitch Kachun
Dr. John Saillant
Dr. Judith Stone
Slave, servant, Granville Sharp, James Somerset, London
This dissertation presents abundant evidence that people of African descent were very present and visible in eighteenth-century London society. In the eighteenth century, London was one of the largest cities in the world with a population that reached almost 700,000 in 1750 and over a million in 1800. In addition, Great Britain was the leading slave trafficking nation in the world. Therefore, it was no surprise that the debate concerning black freedom and liberty was center stage in one of the most important regions in Europe and the Atlantic world. This question, much like the development of slavery in eighteenth-century London itself, intertwined both legal and social institutions.
The famous 1772 Somerset Case upholding the freedom of an escaped black servant added to blacks’ legal uncertainty and left them in a position between slavery and domestic servitude. Some people believed that being on British soil freed blacks from bondage, and others considered baptism a symbol of freedom. Nevertheless, most blacks served as household servants, presumably without wages, making them de facto slaves. Certainly, they were treated as slaves and visual imagery—such as some paintings of blacks—show this, for example, by depicting them in slave collars.
Blacks existed in multiple categories such as an educated elite, household servants, runaways, and sailors. Some blacks attempted self-emancipation by running away from their masters. Numerous newspaper advertisements seeking information about black runaways provide evidence that attempted self-emancipation was common and that white masters considered their black servants to be property, not free citizens. Others blacks participated alongside white working-class people in violent protests against exploitation, such as in the Gordon Riots of 1780.
This dissertation assesses the status of blacks from multiple perspectives and concludes that black Londoners, under the law and in broad cultural understanding existed in an uncertain state. The dissertation adds to the scholarly understanding of the lives of black people in London as a trans-Atlantic phenomenon. While the context of life in London was different from that of the colonies, slavery nevertheless defined the existence of Londoners of African descent.
Restricted to Campus until
Frazier, Tony A., "Air Too Pure for Slavery and the Rights of British Liberty: The Black Experience in London, 1772-1883" (2013). Dissertations. 141.