Royal Charters in 1600 and 1660 established the East India Company and the Royal African Company and between them these two bodies probably wrought more misery and devastation in Asia and Africa than any other institutions. The East Indian Company went beyond its original trading focus on commodities such as textiles, spices and sugar to include the trade of enslaved Africans and some South Asians, and then to rule large areas of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. The Royal African Company dominated the transatlantic slave trade shipping more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other company in the history of the trade.
These companies are long gone. Only Lloyds of London remains (now on the site of the former East India Company and just down the street from where the Royal African company stood for part of its existence.) Established in 1686, Lloyd’s obtained a monopoly on maritime insurance related to the slave trade and maintained it until the abolition of that trade in 1807.
The Runaways London film takes the poets and artists of the Runaways London Project into the heart of the City that rose on the back of these huge institutions.
Runaways London is about history, storytelling and escape from slavery in 17th and 18th Century London. Between the 1650s and 1780s many hundreds of enslaved people were brought to London. Most were African although a significant minority were South Asian and a smaller number were indigenous American. While in the capital some attempted to escape and, on occasions, those who pursued them placed advertisements in London newspapers seeking the capture and return of these freedom-seekers. The average age of the runaways was 16.
These ‘runaway advertisements’ reveal the existence of enslaved people in London yet tell us very little about them, and all through the eyes of those who enslaved and pursued them. Taking the historical research of Professor Simon Newman and Dr Peggy Brunache as the starting point, the Runaways’ poets detailed above and artists Tasia Graham and Olivia Twist reimagined the stories of London’s runaways, showing people of colour to have been present in London, and as having been actors of resistance and resilience.
Since 21st October of last year when we launched Runaways London, the project has gone from strength to strength. In late March, poets Gboyega Odubanjo and Abena Essah were part of a Lloyds of London insurance industry event to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, where they read from their Runaways London work and took part in a panel discussion. On 7th May, Abena joined Oluwaseun Olayiwola to read as part of a Black History Walks tour led by Tony Warner which focused on uprising and resistance and culminated in a creative writing workshop at the Barbican Library. Later that month, on 24th May, the 2018-2019 Young People’s Laureate for London, Montaza Mehri, and Memoona Zahid (former IS&T editing intern) took part in Freedom Seekers of London – Performative interventions in the London, Sugar & Slavery gallery through poetry and art at the Museum of London Docklands. This involved a a tour of the gallery interspersed with the poets reading; seeing what could be learned from the their approaches that could be applied to the exhibition. Attendees all got involved offering their thoughts; it made for a real interrogation of the space, and impressed the Museum. The discussions will form part of its public consultation on redesigning that space.
In addition to the film the project is available in the form of resource packs for Key Stage 3 and 4 classes and an anthology.
The anthology is available here:
Find out more about the Runaways London project, including the school resource packs go to https://www.spreadtheword.org.uk/projects/runaways/
Discover the Runaway Slaves in Britain archive from the University of Glasgow here: https://runaways.gla.ac.uk/