What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A LIKELY young Negro Fellow, who is a good Ship-Carpenter and Caulker.”
As this advertisement vividly demonstrates, enslaved people contributed far more than just involuntary labor to the developing economies of the American colonies. The unnamed “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” offered for this sale in this advertisement was “a good Ship-Carpenter and Caulker” who possessed very specialized skills that could be gained only through training and experience. His work required knowledge of various materials and resources as well as proficiency with an assortment of tools. This “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” was an artisan in his own right, even if his master and other colonists did not accord him that status but instead chose to think of him as a laborer.
In addition to illustrating the expertise possessed by some slaves in colonial America, this advertisement also testifies to the relationship between print and slavery in the eighteenth century. My students recently read an article by David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways.” Although Waldstreicher examined the Middle Colonies, advertisements like this one suggest that his arguments extend to other regions in British mainland North America. For instance, printers enjoyed financial gains thanks to slavery and the slave trade every time they included advertisements for runaways or seeking to buy and sell slaves in their newspapers. It was not necessary to own slaves or sell slaves to benefit from the enslavement of Africans.
Also note that this advertisement directs interested parties that “For farther Particulars, enquire of the Printer of this Paper.” Such maneuvers placed printers, rather than slave traders or auctioneers, at the center of some networks for buying and selling slaves. Printers often facilitated and oversaw the sales of enslaved men, women, and children. In addition, this advertisement did not name the seller or the slave. Waldstreicher points out that this allowed potential sales to remain secret from those who might be sold. Some slaves were literate and shared the contents of newspapers with their peers, but the absence of names meant that the “LIKELY young Negro Fellow” would not be tipped off about an impending sale and choose to avoid it by running away.
This short advertisement, only five lines, opens up a much broader world of colonial commerce, labor, and culture than might be readily apparent at first glance.
 David Waldstreicher, “Reading the Runaways: Self-Fashioning, Print Culture, and Confidence in Slavery in the Eighteenth-Century Mid-Atlantic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 56, no. 2 (April 1999): 243-272.