What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RAN AWAY … NERO … many scars about his head.”
Woodcuts frequently accompanied advertisements offering slaves for sale or warning about runaway slaves. As a result, images of Africans and African Americans appeared in newspapers regularly, in contrast to white colonists who were rarely illustrated with visual images. These woodcuts did not depict particular enslaved men, women, or children. Instead, they were stock devices used interchangeably, erasing the individuality of any of the slaves they purported to represent. Significantly, images of black bodies appeared in eighteenth-century newspapers at all because Africans and African Americans were marketed as commodities, just as the multitude of woodcuts depicting ships represented imported goods.
Last week I discovered that I have access to digitized copies of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, a newspaper not previously incorporated into the Adverts 250 Project. As a result, today I chose to feature an advertisement from that newspaper rather than one either of the other two published 250 years ago today. Both the New-London Gazette and, especially, the New-Hampshire Gazette have contributed a good number of advertisements to this project over the past year. Featuring an advertisement from the South-Carolina and American General Gazette not only increases the number of newspaper included in this project, it also further augments the geographic scope of the project, bringing the number of newspapers printed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1766 that have since been digitized to three. This rivals Boston with four, New York with three, and Philadelphia with two.
As I perused the December 12, 1766, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to make my selection for today, I was drawn to this runaway slave advertisement because of the woodcut. This is not the first time that I have examined a woodcut depicting a slave, but this one had an interesting aspect that was not part of similar woodcuts in other newspapers. The torso of the escaped slave was emblazoned with a capital “R,” presumably for “runaway.” The imaginary slave’s body was marked, almost as if it had been branded, while the actual slave – Nero, a sawyer and woodcutter – was also marked with “many scars about his head.” Advertisements for runaway slaves usually included some sort of physical description that allowed readers to scrutinize the black bodies they encountered beyond the pages of the newspaper. Those descriptions often included marks that had been inflicted upon them by masters and overseers. Nero’s scars may have derived from African cultural traditions or they may have been the result of his labors as a sawyer and woodcutter, but it was just as likely that they were indications of punishment and mistreatment. The real Nero was not marked with a capital “R,” but his body may have born other evidence of his enslavement.