Race and Slavery in Early Modern England: The ‘Inadvertent’ Apprenticeship of Robert Johnson

This post is part of the Monster Carnival 2022 – Why Early Modern History Matters Now. Urvashi Chakravarty is Associate Professor of English at the University of Toronto and works on early modern literature and the history of race and slavery. She tweets at @UrvashiChakrav.

Urvashi Chakravarty

What is the history of race, and what is the history of class? How are they interwoven and when and why are they rendered separate? We often think of these two genealogies as fundamentally opposed, and certainly current cultural discourse frequently treats them that way (‘But what about class?’ is a familiar rejoinder to those of us who speak and write on race in the past and the present). In particular, we might imagine these histories—of race and class—as converging most explicitly around the sites of slavery, but as I explore in my work, they are in fact deeply interwoven in the literary and cultural texts of early modern England, and in the documentary evidence around labour that persists: if we want to recover a labour history and a class history, I argue, we need to understand the history of race.

In this piece, therefore, I want to think about an early modern fragmentary document, what it might reveal about the entwined relationship between race and labour, and how we might use such documentary evidence to recover and complicate a premodern English history of class and labour.

To begin, then: what is the place of slavery in early modern England, how and why is it
racialised, and what might forms of early modern labour have to teach us about the construction of race in the premodern period and its enduring legacy today? These are the central questions that have been consuming my work and thinking for over a decade, and so it’s no surprise that they lie at the heart of my recently published book Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude and Free Service in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2022, published as the first book in its new series on ‘RaceB4Race: Critical Race Studies of the Premodern’). Fictions of Consent argues that forms of household service, apprenticeship, indenture, and liveried retainership in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England are on the one hand pervasive and everyday, and on the other hand are vexed sites of consent and contract that are paradoxically implicated in the development of racialised slavery.


The two questions that come up frequently when I speak or write about this topic are: was there slavery in early modern England? And what does ‘race’ mean, particularly in an early modern context – and can we even talk about race in this historical period? (‘Don’t we want to talk about class instead?’).

To begin to answer these questions, I suggest that we first need to untangle what we mean when we talk about race. Race refers not to a single axis of legible difference (such as skin colour or other somatic markers, or religion, for instance) but rather to the modes of organising relations of power. In that context, it’s perhaps surprising that we haven’t thought more about how the everyday relations of labour in early modern England comprise part of the fabric of race. Although popular discourse often suggests that class and race are different and often opposing categories and investments, as I have noted, the history of labour and class and the history of race are inextricable.

In order to think through this relationship, I turn to a document that I recently ran across in the London Metropolitan Archives, in which a Black servant petitioned for release from an ‘inadvertent’ apprenticeship in 1727.[1] In the (fragmentary) document, the petitioner, ‘Robert Johnson a negro’ notes that he had ‘lived a servant’ with his master in ‘South Carolina and in England upwards of Two & Seven’ years.

Although some of this petition has been lost and we are left to derive meaning from its fragments, we can see that Robert Johnson ‘was Baptised’ on ‘the 28th of March 1725’; but just two months later, ‘on the 28th of May’, he was manipulated into signing an apprenticeship indenture that bound him without his consent or even his knowledge, despite the fact that, as the petition claims, his master ‘well knewe’ that Johnson could ‘neith[er] Write or Read’. Since Johnson had never been ‘acquainted’ with the content of the document, the petition argues that the indenture is ‘illegal & voyd’, that Johnson has been ‘used … with the utmost severity’.

Elsewhere in the collection, we find petitions from several apprentices requesting to be discharged from their apprenticeship indentures on the grounds of want of instruction, or of being underage, on the basis that the fundamental conditions of apprenticeship are being violated. Johnson’s case, however, points to a different constellation of questions, around who is particularly vulnerable to exploitation and coercion, and how racial difference is created in the context of those concerns.

Piecing together the history of this document from fragments is also of course a metaphor for how we excavate the histories of race, labour, and servitude in the archive: they are elusive, spotty, sometimes speculative. Since we have only a limited number of documents to which we can turn to untangle this genealogy, we are compelled to fill in the lacunae with productive speculation. The very lack of documentary evidence presents an archival problem, but also provides methodological possibilities: the gaps in the record make for an opportunity to understand how the workings of racial formation, servitude, and slavery operate: through the conflicts and slippages between what is and isn’t there, we start to discern the strategies by which early modern England participated in the project of enforced, and racialised, labour.

In the case of Robert Johnson, the fact that he cannot ‘Write or Read’ and is therefore susceptible to manipulation is not unusual for a servant; what is striking, perhaps, is the departure, in this petition, from the grounds for complaint in other petitions by presumably white, English servants—and the fact that Johnson’s master exploits this breach at all.

I want to end by noting that these gaps and fragments are also part of the record of race and slavery in early modern England. Robert Johnson, we remember, has ‘lived a servant’ to his master not only in England, but also in South Carolina. And given the history of the latter place, he may, perhaps, have been an enslaved person, brought back to England from America. In light of this chilling possibility, I propose that what we see here, nestled within this record of a servant’s petition, is in fact the attempt to return Robert Johnson to a condition of bound labour which the laws of England otherwise proscribe. The legal apparatus of the petition, in other words, potentially both elides and illuminates the hidden, attempted operations of enslavement in early modern England.

It is these hidden registers and repositories of slavery that my book, Fictions of Consent, explores and uncovers. The histories of Atlantic slavery, I argue in the book, are embedded in the contexts of English service, indenture, apprenticeship, and servitude. The ‘severity’ of Robert Johnson’s inadvertent apprenticeship in this chilling, fragmentary, elusive document reveals how the architecture of English service underwrites the framework of Atlantic slavery, and calls for a renewed examination of the relationship between early modern race, labour, and class.


Further Reading on Race, Labour and the Archive in Early Modern England:

Akhimie, Patricia. Shakespeare and the Cultivation of Difference: Race and Conduct in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2018).

Habib, Imtiaz. Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

Hall, Kim F. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).


[1] London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SP/1727/01/002.

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