This article is part of a series on Risk and Uncertainty. Articles in this series aim to explore how ordinary people understood and coped with risk and uncertainty in times of personal crisis and in everyday life, helping to illuminate our own experiences of navigating an increasingly uncertain world. You can read an introduction to the series here.
A Black Boy called Cuffee, aged about 12 years; run away from his Master Justice Jory Esq; at Bethnal-Green in Stepney Parish in Middlesex about 8 weeks past; He had on a brown Coat, and a blue Mastcoat, Stockings, and Cap; he speaks very good English, but no other Language. Whoever sends him to his said Master, shall be well Rewarded.
– London Gazette, 24 July 1701.
Two people are named in the sixty-one words of this newspaper advertisement. We know considerably more about Joseph Jory (or Jorey) than we do about Cuffee. Born in Plymouth in 1646, by his early twenties Jory had settled on the small Caribbean island of Nevis. After marrying Frances Russell, the daughter of one of the island’s most successful planters, Jory took possession of a plantation in St George Gingerland parish in the southeastern corner of the small island. Jory rose in island society, serving on the governor’s council and becoming a colonel in the island’s militia. But it was the work of enslaved people that made Jory wealthy: his father-in-law claimed ownership of as many as 150 enslaved people, and by 1708 Jory’s plantation included at least 33 enslaved people. He likely claimed ownership of many more, successfully claiming nearly £900 in compensation for losses incurred during a French raid on the island, including the loss of an unspecified number of enslaved people.
But by then Jory had already left Nevis and taken up residence in greater London. A wealthy and connected man, he became a Justice of the Peace in London, he represented his fellow Nevis planters as their colonial agent in the metropolis, and he increased his wealth as a merchant in the West India trade and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, serving as a director of the Royal African Company. In the early eighteenth-century Jory’s family lived in Kirby’s Castle, a large 114 roomed house with separate brew house and coach house in the village of Bethnal Green, on the northern edge of Stepney in London’s fast-growing East End.
In addition to his Nevis plantation Jory owned a townhouse in the island’s capital of Charlestown, some five miles to the west on the other side of the island. Perhaps Cuffee had been enslaved in this household as a domestic servant, gaining experience that would help him serve Jory as a page boy and personal attendant in London. Cuffee wore a livery, the smart uniform of a personal attendant to a wealthy man engaged in imperial ventures and trade. His matching blue waistcoat, stockings and cap were no doubt striking, although there were many young Black boys in London, mostly African but some South Asian, who accompanied or ran errands for their masters.
During the first half-century of London’s newspaper advertisements for people of colour who had escaped their masters and enslavers (1655-1704), 56% of those whose ages were indicated were teenagers or younger, and 15% were, like Cuffee, 12 or younger. Portraits from this era often portrayed wealthy and powerful English people attended by beautifully presented Black boys, many of them enslaved.
Cuffee is a West African name, most likely an anglicized version of the Akan day name Kofi, indicating that the boy had been born on a Friday. Although Cuffee may have been born in West Africa it is more likely that his parents were West African but that he had been born in Nevis. Between 1676 and 1700 at least 17,000 enslaved people had been brought from Africa to Nevis, arriving on ships such as the John, a Royal African Company ship that brought 131 enslaved Africans from the Gold Coast to Nevis at the end of 1695. The advertisement notes that Cuffee ‘speaks very good English, but no other language’, suggesting that he was a creole who had lived and worked for most of his short life in close proximity to white people, quite likely in domestic service in the Jory household.
This short advertisement is perhaps the only surviving record of Cuffee’s very existence. Only about twelve years old when he escaped, he had been absent for two months before Jory advertised for him: a lag between escape and advertising was not unusual, giving the escapee time to reconsider and return, or the enslaver time to locate and retrieve the freedom seeker. If he escaped from Jory’s Bethnal Green home Cuffee may have walked south to the small Black community in Stratford, or perhaps he walked west and into the city, hiring himself out as a servant who worked for wages and was no longer owned by another man. It is perhaps more likely that he had become a cabin boy or a powder monkey (one of the boys carrying gunpowder to gun crews on Royal Naval ships), joining one of the many merchant and Royal Navy ships that required the labour of men and boys. Recruitment had no doubt increased following the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession earlier in the year of his escape. Ironically it was French attacks on Nevis during this war that resulted in the loss of much of Jory’s property on the island, including many enslaved people.
Perhaps it was this same war that enabled Cuffee to achieve freedom. Service aboard ship was dangerous at the best of times, and if this was what Cuffee did then he may well have died a sailor. But if so he died free.