Discourses of Freedom and Slavery, 1640-60

Today we return to our recent series from History of Parliament director Dr Stephen Roberts, who has been discussing parliamentary involvement in the 17th century transatlantic slave trade. In the latest post Dr Roberts turns his attention to the uses of the terms ‘slavery’ and ‘liberty’ within years surrounding the English Civil Wars.

It is a remarkable enough paradox that while an ever-increasing number of slaves from West Africa were being transported to English colonies in the Caribbean, none of it seems to have impinged on the minds of English parliamentarians. Still more striking is the fact that slavery as a concept was never far from the minds and tongues of the English in the seventeenth century.

When Parliament assembled in November 1640 and embarked on a programme of holding the government of Charles I to account for eleven years of what many MPs readily called tyranny, the word was often used both in speeches and printed documents critical of the king’s policies and ministers.

One of these ministers, the earl of Strafford (Sir Thomas Wentworth) was impeached by the Commons and put on trial, mainly for abuses of power in Ireland. One of the managers of the trial, the MP John Glynne, delivered a long, powerful and persuasive speech to the House of Lords during the impeachment proceedings, showing how the people had complained ‘against the ministers (that should execute justice) of their oppression, and slavery, and bondage’. Glynne went on to describe abuses of the king’s prerogative, properly the ‘sanctuary’ of the people’s liberty, but now ‘a means of their bondage and slavery’.

Sir Thomas Wentworth, 1st earl of Strafford, after Sir Anthony van Dyck c.1633, National Portrait Gallery

The crisis deepened after Strafford’s execution in May 1641, but even before civil war broke out in 1642, a torrent of printed publications provided a medium for expressions of allegiance to one or other of the warring parties. One of these propaganda pieces, Reasons why this Kingdom ought to adhere to the Parliament, offered a stout vindication of MPs’ actions, harking back to the Strafford trial and legislation of 1641 as ‘the great burdens and slavery they have freed us from’. The writer also looked ahead to the rooting out of ‘slavery and superstition’, reform, renewal and economic regeneration through cheerful payments of taxes to Parliament.

From these few samples of political discourse, which could be multiplied many times, it is apparent that the word ‘slavery’ was often used in the particular cultural context of conflict between elements of the propertied classes. Slavery was often explicitly, and always implicitly, linked with ‘liberty’, its opposite. Liberty, in a society where democracy even as a concept had yet to take root, was itself narrowly defined to mean a range of freedoms, most centrally freedom from arbitrary government.

‘Slavery’ was in this discourse frequently and freely deployed as a synonym or intensifier of ‘bondage’. It was an idiom that drew heavily on biblical, Old Testament examples, with the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, or the fate of Samson among the Philistines, providing typical comparisons readily accessible even to those without literacy skills. 

As the civil war deepened, ‘slavery’ was used more freely and rhetorically, wildly even, by combatants and non-combatants alike, to convey their sense of despair and anguish at the country’s ruination. Worcestershire supporters of the king in January 1644 asserted their eagerness ‘to redeem ourselves from the insolency and slavery, we already in part suffer’; and in turn, the parliamentarians besieging Worcester in 1646, calling on the Worcester mayor to surrender, expressing pity for ‘those who through ignorance are enslaved under your tyranny’.

 Map of the main roads, garrisons and battle of the English Civil War in Worcestershire, John William Willis-Bund, The Civil War In Worcestershire, 1642-1646, 1905. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Slavery’s antonym, Freedom, underwent a parallel development. As public political debate, much of it in print, and famously in the parliamentarian armies, widened to include those with only modest property or none, attention was given to the birth-right of ‘freeborn Englishmen’. Radical activists were buoyed up by the theory that their Anglo-Saxon ancestors had once enjoyed a great range of freedoms, lost after the arrival of William the Conqueror. The ‘Norman Yoke’ had continued to be imposed by William’s successors, the kings of England, and the yoke had continued to be borne by the common people, struggling to assert their identity as freeborn English. In this vein, one of the Leveller leaders, William Walwyn, in 1645 published England’s Lamentable Slaverie, which exposed Magna Carta as a construct of the Norman oppressors.

Chattel slavery, as practised beyond Europe, figured in none of this discourse, although it did appear regularly in parliamentary deliberations in one particular context. The Grand Remonstrance of the House of Commons to the king (1 December 1641) included in its summing-up of the country’s grievances the persistent threat to coastal communities of attacks by pirates from north Africa, especially in the hijacking of ships and detaining their English crews ‘in miserable slavery’, sometimes for ransom.

Fear of capture by north African pirates was an ever-present anxiety among maritime traders and those who spoke for shipping interests in Parliament. Piracy was directed from the ‘Barbary States’, as they were known in Europe, of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, nominal dependencies of the Ottoman Empire but exercising much independence.

Their bold raids, sometimes even into the English Channel, were alarming, and a chronic problem for English governments: as late as 1687 pirates intercepted two mail ships crossing to Holland, and 100 passengers were carried off to slavery. Such horror stories kept an edge on English fears of what slavery could entail, but debate not only on the reality of slavery, but the reality sustained by the English state, remained a rarity. Such a rare discussion took place in Parliament in 1659, and will be discussed in the next blog in this series. 


Further reading

Christopher Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’, chapter in Puritanism and Revolution (1958)

John Rees, The Leveller Revolution: Radical Political Organisation in England, 1640-1650 (2016)

John Adamson, The Noble Revolt (2007)

Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire (2008)

Read the first blog from Dr Roberts here.

2 thoughts on “Discourses of Freedom and Slavery, 1640-60

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s