Simon P. Newman

Position title: Solmsen Fellow (2019-2020)

Sir Denis Brogan Professor of History, History, University of Glasgow

Portrait image of Simon Newman wearing a blue shirt and dark jacket standing in a wood paneled room.

The Invention of Runaway Slaves in the Seventeenth-Century English Atlantic World

For as long as there have been systems of forced labor people have sought to escape from them. Yet while bound labor was commonplace in late medieval and early modern England, full and legally supported slavery did not exist. Thus as racial slavery began to take root in the seventeenth-century English colonies in North America and the Caribbean, escape emerged as a somewhat new form of resistance to enslavement. How it occurred, how both masters and the enslaved reacted to it, and how individuals and governments sought to prevent it all involved or required new practices, new laws, and new attitudes.

This project explores the development of both a practice and an understanding of resistance to slavery through escape in the seventeenth-century English Atlantic World. I will explore the creation of legal systems in the colonies to confront escape and the simultaneous development of the first runaway slave and servant advertisements in England (where newspapers advertisements for freedom-seeking runaways pre-dated those of the colonies by half a century).

Most work on runaways has focused on the period after 1750, and I will explore the narrativized embodiment of resistance through escape in the cultural construction of seventeenth-century advertisements, laws, and codes. The stories of how these early runaways, and masters’ reactions to them, helped shape the larger institution of racial slavery will deepen our understanding of the developing racial power relations within England and its early colonies.


Simon Newman began his career writing about popular political culture and social history in the era of the American Revolution. For the past fifteen years, he has focused on the history of slavery in the British Atlantic World, publishing a book on the origins of the plantation labor system. He led a Leverhulme Trust funded project creating a database of runaway slave advertisements published in eighteenth-century Britain, and this research has resulted in collaborations with playwrights, musical composers, film-makers and a graphic novelist who are all interested in the presence of enslaved people in Georgian Britan.

Professor Newman is interested in digital humanities and the potential it has for new kinds of resources and publications in slavery history. In 2018 he published the William and Mary Quarterly‘s first born-digital article, and he is aiming to publish the research he completed at the Institute as an Open Access digital book.

Professor Newman has also helped initiate a report into the degree to which the University of Glasgow benefitted financially from Atlantic World racial slavery. Glasgow was the first British university to undertake such a study and to develop a program of reparative justice as a result.