Runaways announced  – History, storytelling and escape from slavery in 17th and 18th Century London 

News

“The history of Britain and slavery isn’t just about the accumulation of wealth via the brutal enslavement of Africans and racialised terror that occurred thousands of miles away in the Caribbean. It’s also about how the enslaved were forced to live and work here on British soil and courageously resisted their captivity at every turn possible, seeking freedom. That Black history is British history. It belongs to all of us.” – Dr Peggy Brunache 

With partners Ink Sweat & Tears Press, the Museum of London Docklands and the University of Glasgow,  Spread the Word is pleased to announce the launch of Runaways, the project’s lead artists and an invitation to young writers and artists to participate. 

Between the 1650s and 1770s many hundreds of enslaved people were brought to London. Most were African although a significant minority were South Asian. 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. 

Professor Simon Newman said: “Slavery was very different in London, often polite and genteel, with young people dressed in expensive liveries as personal servants who advertised the wealth and success of those who claimed ownership of them. But it was still slavery and these people could easily be sent back to the places where enslavement was more savage and violent. Some tried to escape while in London yet we know very little about them. Who were they, where did they come from, what had they experienced, and what kind of home was London for them? These are the questions that inspire the Runaways Project.” 

Taking the historical research of Professor Simon Newman and Dr Peggy Brunache as the starting point, Runaways’ lead artists – poets Momtaza Mehri and Gboyega Odubanjo and illustrator Olivia Twist – will reimagine the stories of London’s runaway slaves, showing people of colour to have been present in London, and as having been actors of resistance and resilience as well as victims. They will be able to claim and represent this history on their own terms.  

Momtaza Mehri, lead poet, said: “I am thrilled to join the Runaways Project, one which will untangle archival violence to reveal the sinews of resistance and the persistence of freedom dreams. Lending my voice to such a project is an honour, and I can’t wait for my creative intervention to stand alongside that of fellow artists, poets and researchers.”

Gboyega Odubanjo, lead poet, said: “My work centres London very heavily and so it is exciting to be working on something that will teach me a lot about the history of the place I call home. I look forward to researching these misremembered lives and creating work that hopefully honours them in some way.” 

An open call has been announced today inviting London-based Black and South Asian writers, poets and visual artists aged 18-30 years old to apply to be part of the Runaways project. Two writers and one visual artist will be commissioned to work alongside the lead artists and academics. 

The creative work produced by the writers, poets and artists will be published in the Runaways anthology by Ink Sweat & Tears Press which will be launched at an event on 21 October 2021 at the Museum of London Docklands alongside a Runaways film of the commissioned work and research, and a Runaways resource pack for young people, schools and youth clubs.   

Finbarr Whooley, Director of Content at the Museum of London, said: “The Museum of London Docklands are very happy to support the Runaways project, which provides a new perspective on 17th and 18th century London and the history of the transatlantic slave trade. The Museum of London Docklands’ gallery London, Sugar & Slavery, tells the history of the transatlantic slave trade and London’s involvement. The museum, based in an old sugar warehouse, is the physical manifestation of this history in the capital and as an organisation we are always looking into new ways of telling this important history. We welcome the Runaways project initiative and are looking forward to seeing the results.” 

Runaways is managed by Spread the Word and the project publisher is Ink Sweat & Tears Press. 

Runaways is supported and funded by: The British Association for American Studies/United States Embassy Small Grants Programme; Economic and Social Research Council, Impact Acceleration Award; University of Glasgow Knowledge Exchange (KE) Small Grants 2020/21; City of London Grants and private donations.  

For more information please visit www.spreadtheword.org.uk/runaways 

Photo credit: 

Olivia Twist by Abigail Holsborough

Published 11 May 2021