What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BARBADOS whitest LOAF SUGAR.”
“A NEGRO BOY.”
Today I have chosen two advertisements whose proximity on the page resonated with me. When I scanned this issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette to make my selection, particular portions of each advertisement seemed to jump off the page:
- “BARBADOS whitest LOAF SUGAR”
- “A NEGRO BOY”
Two separate advertisements, but each inextricably bound with the other.
Considered on its own, the first advertisement seems to hide the connection between a finished product available for purchase in an increasingly vibrant eighteenth-century marketplace and the labor of enslaved Africans on plantations in faraway Barbados – at least to twenty-first-century readers unfamiliar with the networks of production, exchange, and consumption in the early modern Atlantic world. Consumers in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1766, on the other hand, would have certainly been aware of the origins of the sugar they consumed, even if advertisements and conversations politely avoided the topic.
Yet that connection could hardly be ignored here, not when an advertisement for “BARBADOS whitest LOAF SUGAR” was followed immediately by an advertisement for “A NEGRO BOY.” Slavery was not only a labor system practiced far away in other parts of the British Empire. It was not only an invisible (but not really invisible) foundation of commercial networks and consumer culture in the eighteenth century. Slavery was part of colonial culture even in the northernmost colonies in British mainland North America, even in those colonies with relatively few slaves compared to their counterparts in the Chesapeake and the Lower South.
Even for consumers who might have wished to ignore the connections between sugar and slavery, the juxtaposition of these two advertisements would have made that very difficult, if not impossible.