Parliament and Forced Colonial Labour in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, 1659

In today’s blog Dr Stephen Roberts concludes his three-part blog series discussing parliamentary reactions to the 17th century transatlantic slave trade. Here Dr Roberts considers the case of a group of political prisoners who had been transported as indentured servants in 1655.

As noted in the first blog, the transportation of slaves from West Africa grew proportionally with the development of the Caribbean as an important component of the English colonial economy; and as noted in the second, there was a lively political discourse in 1640s and 50s England centred on liberties and slavery, even if much of it was rhetorical. Only on occasion did the compartmentalized worlds of English liberties and overseas slavery collide in Parliament, much to the discomfort of MPs.

Richard Cromwell, 2nd Lord Protector, Gerard Soest via Wikimedia Commons

One such episode came in March 1659. Unhelpfully to the Cromwellian government, the chairman of the committee of grievances, Thomas Tyrrell MP, brought before the House a petition by Marcellus Rivers and Oxenbridge Foyle, two men claiming to speak for 70 more ‘freeborn people of this nation’. They had been transported in 1655 to Barbados for their part in a royalist rising in the west of England. Their petition described their nearly six-week voyage from Plymouth to the island, where as ‘the goods and chattels’ of English government officials they had been sold, each for over half a ton of sugar, and put to work in the sugar mills and furnaces. They had been transported, as the custom was with most white labourers sent to the colonies, as indentured servants, a status which was supposed to offer them certain protected conditions of service.

Indentured servitude was the dominant form of master-servant relations in the West Indies outside slavery. In most respects this form of service encouraged grossly uneven bargains favouring the masters, but English servants without capital secured a passage to an overseas region of economic growth otherwise completely beyond their means. No doubt a minority made good in the West Indies.

The 1659 petitioners complained that whatever assurances had been given them in 1655, in fact they had been sold into slavery. The petition provoked a range of reactions in the chamber when it was read. A number of serving MPs had been involved in suppressing the 1655 rising, and had pertinent things to say about the circumstances of the transportation.

Some reminded colleagues of the threat to the state which the petitioning cavaliers had represented in 1655; others were keen to remind MPs that none were sent to the colonies ‘without their consent’. An old soldier, Richard Browne, won the sympathy of the House when he complained that as a victim of the cavaliers his own petition should be heard instead of theirs. One Member insisted that the lot of the indentured servants was not all that hard – ‘they were civilly used, and had horses to ride on’ – and was keen to point out that in fact the work was mostly done by the black slaves.

Sir Henry Vane the Younger, Peter Levy, via Wikimedia Commons

More were affronted that exiled cavaliers had been allowed to petition at all, and some republicans in the House applauded that; but the leading republican, Sir Henry Vane, who incidentally had colonial experience as governor of Massachusetts, 1636-7, argued that hostility to the king’s cause should not blind MPs to the barbarous treatment of the petitioners.

Whatever barely-contained political differences between them simmered away in this Parliament, republicans and rigid Presbyterians could unite in criticism of the Cromwellian government for making slaves of the petitioners. ‘I would have you consider the trade of buying and selling men’, urged the Cornish Presbyterian Hugh Boscawen. Referencing St Paul, whose Roman citizenship had protected him from the fate of slaves in Rome, Boscawen asserted the rule of law and protections of prisoners after trial: ‘A Roman ought not to be beaten. We are miserable slaves if we may not have this liberty secured to us.’ But this fell a long way short of an expression of human rights: it was the degradation of white transportees that appalled him, not the existence of black slavery in Barbados.

Most of the parliamentary day was devoted to this debate, but as with many debates in 1659, this one petered out with nothing resolved. The surviving evidence suggests that as a result of this debate, no perceptions had been modified. A week later, the Presbyterian MP, Arthur Annesley, in a speech complaining about the scale of the national debt, predicted that if nothing was done about it, ‘our children shall … be bond slaves’. This was a speech in the idiom of 1640: the size and cost of government threatened English liberties in England. It would be many decades before brutal slavery beyond England’s shores began to trouble parliamentarians.


Further Reading

Paul Lay, Providence Lost. The Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate (2020)

Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s bid for Empire (2017)

Diary of Thomas Burton, Esq. ed. J. T. Rutt (4 vols 1828), available online here

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