What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … a MUSTEE WENCH.”
Jenny, an enslaved woman, made her escape, prompting Archibald Bulloch to place an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette. He offered a reward to “Whoever apprehends and delivers the said wench to me in Savannah.” To help readers identify Jenny, Bulloch described her as a “MUSTEE WENCH,” mobilizing one of the many categories for describing both the physical appearance and heritage of mixed race men, women, and children in the early modern Atlantic world.
Mustee, now chiefly an historical term according to the Oxford English Dictionary, specifically means “a person with one white-skinned parent and the other one-quarter black.” In other words, Jenny may have been one-eighth black, presumably fairly light-skinned, as the result of having one African great-grandparent. However, the OED also indicates that mustee sometimes also referred to “a person of mixed European and African descent” and, even more generally, “a person of mixed racial descent” (including indigenous Americans as well as Africans). Mustee was likely a shortened form of mestizo arising from non-standardized spellings. That being the case, Bulloch may not have intended to be any more descriptive than simply indicating that Jenny had a mixed racial heritage.
Whatever the case, Bulloch mobilized print culture to put black bodies on display. By advertising Jenny and describing her as a “MUSTEE WENCH,” he encouraged readers to engage in surveillance of all black women they encountered, to carefully examine their physical characteristics to assess whether they might be the runaway. This advertisement called attention not only to Jenny; it cast suspicion on all black women, the reward offering added incentive to take note of their bodies.
Research note: I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary for an authoritative definition and etymology of mustee. Among its historical sources, the OED included a runaway slave advertisement published in the South Carolina Gazette in 1732.