Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Will also sell … a Negro Man that understands Brewing and Distilling.”
As he prepared to leave Boston for Nova Scotia, Robert Whatley had the eighteenth-century version of a moving sale. He scheduled a “Public Vendue” (or auction) to sell many of his personal belongings, including beds, tables, chairs, and even a “fine large Canoe with Sails.” Whatley, a brewer by trade, also wished to sell his equipment, including “a Copper Boiler with a brass Cock to it, fit for a Coffee-House or Tavern” and his “Brewing Utensils with all Things necessary for that Business.”
In addition to his household furniture and the tools of his trade, Whatley also offered to sell “a Negro Man that understand Brewing and Distilling.” The Adverts 250 Project recently examined an advertisement that included enslaved artisans, including carpenters and coopers, exploited for their expertise and specialized skills in addition to their labor. Whatley’s advertisement further demonstrates the range of occupations and crafts enslaved men and women pursued in the colonial and Revolutionary eras.
Both the copy and the layout of Whatley’s notice suggest that colonists would not have considered it in any way extraordinary that “a Negro Man that understands Brewing and Distilling” played a role in operating the business. Readers who skimmed the advertisements in the Massachusetts Gazette might even have missed the portion of Whatley’s advertisement that mentioned the enslaved brewer; that sentence was nestled in the middle of two dense paragraphs. In some respects, Whatley’s attempt to sell his slave was hidden in plain sight. It was part of his advertisement, but not its main purpose.
As my students and I have pursued the Slavery Adverts 250 Project for the past seven months, the frequency of advertisements like this one has been a striking feature. We expected to encounter advertisements exclusively devoted to slavery, especially those that offered one or more slaves for sale and others concerning runaway slaves. We have been a bit more surprised by how often slaves for sale incidentally appeared in advertisements, listed alongside consumer goods and real estate. The practice of slavery – the presence of slavery in everyday life and commerce – pervaded early American print culture, especially advertising, more subtly and to a much greater extent than we initially expected.