GUEST CURATOR: Ceara Morse
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“BETWEEN sixty and seventy likely NEGROES … among whom are carpenters, coopers and sawyers.”
This advertisement said the slaves for sale included “carpenters, coopers and sawyers.” I had never heard of coopers or sawyers before so I decided to find out more about them. The job of a cooper was to make casks, buckets and other containers to store things. The sawyer worked in a saw mill. Daniel C. Littlefield states that in the 1700s plantation owners in South Carolina “expected enslaved people to perform a wide range of jobs that included carpenter, cooper, boatman, cook, seamstress, and blacksmith, to mention only a few of the skilled function required around plantations.”
This made me question, what other jobs could be found on South Carolina plantations. Since the majority of the plantations in South Carolina were rice plantations, the major jobs on the plantation were creating dikes or levees and sluices and to maintain them. Slaves also had to keep animals away from the area. Other jobs included planting, weeding, and harvesting the rice.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Each eighteenth-century slavery advertisement tells an important story that demonstrates the scope of enslaved people’s experiences in early America, but some of them tell stories less familiar to my students (and the general public) than others. When Ceara selected today’s advertisement, I encouraged her to focus on the “carpenters, coopers and sawyers” prominently listed among the slaves offered for sale.
That enslaved men, women, and children were exploited for their labor comes as no surprise, but most students do not realize that slaveholders benefited from far more than just the labor of their labors. Instead, slaves contributed valuable expertise to plantations and the colonial economy more generally. Many learned specialized skills. Enslaved artisans plied their crafts on plantations in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but they also worked in urban centers throughout the colonies, north and south.
Advertisers often made special note of the skills their human property possessed, such as the “carpenters, coopers and sawyers” from today’s advertisement or the “FOUR very valuable NEGROES” advertised in the Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal on March 17, 1767. Three of the four were considered particularly valuable because two were “good workmen at the cabinet-maker’s business” and one was “a good sawyer, and handles his tools so well in the coarser branches of that trade as to be capable of making a tolerable country carpenter.”
In some instances enslaved artisans were “hired out” for limited amounts of time, such as a “Negro Man, by Trade a Shoemaker” also advertised in the March 17 supplement. This practice granted slaveholders an even greater return on their investment by occupying the time of skilled laborers who might otherwise experience lulls in demand for their services on their own plantations.
I anticipate that Ceara will approach her responsibilities as curator of the Slavery Adverts 250 Project with a more nuanced appreciation of the different kinds of labor and expertise described in the advertisements now that she has a better understanding that slaves contributed knowledge and expertise as well as physical labor to the cultivation of crops and the production of commodities in colonial and Revolutionary America.