GUEST CURATOR: Jonathan Bisceglia
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Negro Woman who understands all Sorts of houshold Work.”
I chose this advertisement because slavery in northern colonies and states is often overlooked when discussing slavery in American history. For the most part, slavery and the slave trade in the southern colonies get more attention. However, slavery was not only used in the northern colonies (see the census from 1774) but Rhode Island was also a hub for the slave trade. According to historians at the John Carter Brown Library, “Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but also entered with gusto into the trade.” Rhode Islanders gained so many profits from slavery that “[b]y the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.” Voyages like these not only kept the institution of slavery going but encouraged it. I found this advertisement quite surprising, learning that slavery was so important so close to home.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Recovering the lives of enslaved men, women, and children can be an extremely difficult task. Historians consult many different kinds of sources in their efforts to reconstruct the experiences of slaves, including advertisements like the one Jonathan selected to feature today. That advertisement offers frustratingly few details, but it does reveal the presence of an enslaved woman in Rhode Island. It includes her approximate age and suggests the type of labor she performed for her master, “all Sorts of houshold Work.” The advertisement does not, however, include the enslaved woman’s name nor the name of the slaveholder who wished to sell her. The conditions of the sale were camouflaged by instructions to interested parties: “For further Particulars enquire at the Printing-Office.” This advertisement appeared immediately below another one that revealed the presence of slavery in Rhode Island but advanced few details: “TO BE SOLD, A Likely, healthy Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years old, fit for either Town or Country, having been used to Farming Business.” It also concluded with instructions to “enquire at the Printing-Office in Providence.” Such advertisements aid historians in making generalizations about the experiences of enslaved men, women, and children, even in the absence of enough evidence to sketch more complete biographies.
On the other hand, other sorts of advertisements for slaves tell much more complete stories about their subjects. Advertisements for runaways frequently incorporated extensive descriptions of enslaved men, women, and children, from their physical appearance to their clothing to any goods they carried off. They elaborated on their ethnicity and the languages they spoke. They specified any special skills runaways possessed or trades they practiced. They revealed relationships within slave communities and among others, black and white, that might attempt to aid runaways. In some cases, they even told stories of previous attempts to abscond. Although written by white masters attempting to regain their human property, some scholars consider advertisements for runaways to be the first slave narratives. It would be difficult to deny the agency exhibited by slaves who chose to flee from those who kept them in bondage.