What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … two negroes.”
The Slavery Adverts 250 Project, a companion to the Adverts 250 Project, began last fall as an experimental class project for my Colonial America course. Along with the undergraduate guest curators, I hoped to explore the frequency that advertisements concerning slaves appeared in colonial newspapers and, when appropriate, draw distinctions between the presence of such advertisements among various cities and towns, colonies, or regions. In general, I hoped to use the Slavery Adverts 250 Project to demonstrate to students that slavery was present throughout colonial America, in the northern colonies where they did not expect to encounter it as well as in southern colonies where they already knew slavery was practiced extensively.
Identifying and republishing all of the advertisements for slaves that appeared in colonial newspapers 250 years ago certainly gives a sense of the frequency that such advertisements appeared in colonial newspapers. Slavery was such a part of everyday life and culture, as well as an integral component of colonial economies, that advertisements seeking to buy or sell slaves and notices about runaways and captured fugitive slaves became a mundane part of the advertising pages in newspapers throughout the colonies.
That being said, collecting and republishing such advertisements tells an incomplete story. It reveals which newspapers tended to include more advertisements for slaves than others, but removing those advertisements from their original context disguises their ubiquity, especially in newspapers published in the Lower South.
Consider today’s advertisement for runaways London (who “speaks very good French, and broken English”) and his wife, Nanny. In and of itself, this advertisement tells a fascinating story of enslavement and agency in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. On its own, however, it does not reveal the amount of space given over to advertisements for slaves in the Georgia Gazette. Nine such advertisements appeared in the February 4, 1767, issue, spread over three of its four pages. They accounted for one-third of the twenty-nine advertisements. Seven were printed on the final page, distributed such that readers could not escape noticing them.
A few days ago I noted that advertisements placed by the printer filled a disproportionate amount of space on the final page of the Providence Gazette, perhaps because the publication had difficulty attracting other advertisers. James Johnston did not have that difficulty when he took the Georgia Gazette to press every week. Enslavement was a significant aspect of daily life in Georgia in 1767. If it had not been, the colony’s only newspaper would not have been overflowing with advertisements announcing “ONE NEGROE WENCH and CHILD” for sale or “A NEGROE FELLOW named TOM” committed to the workhouse or “a reward of ten shillings” for anyone who captured London and Nanny.