What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Will also sell with or without the Walk, two likely Negro Men.”
When William Mumford and John Cole decided to sell their ropewalk in Newport, Rhode Island, they published an advertisement in the Providence Gazette. In it, they described the property where they made rope as “well found,” “very level,” and “convenient for the Business.” In addition, it property came with all the equipment “necessary for spinning, tur[n]ing, and laying of Cordage of all Sizes.” Most of the major colonial cities had ropewalks that produced some of the supplies essential for outfitting the vessels that passed through the busy ports.
Mumford and Cole did not, however, advertise just the ropewalk. Prospective buyers could also purchase “two likely Negro Men.” These were not mere laborers; instead, each “understands the Business of Rope-making.” One was “a very good Spinner.” The other was not quite as adept at that task, but “spins well for his Practice.” His primary value derived from another contribution he made to the operation of the ropewalk: he “understands the dressing of Hemp.” These “likely Negro Men” enhanced the value of the business through their skill and experience. They made its sale more attractive to potential buyers who would not need to be as concerned with hiring and retaining workers as they otherwise might have been.
Many of the commodities advertised in the Providence Gazette and other colonial newspapers had direct connections to enslaved Africans. Consumers knew that slaves produced sugar, rice, indigo, tobacco, and other staple crops, yet that was not where the presence of slaves in the networks of eighteenth-century commerce ended. They also participated in transporting commodities from the sites of production to the places of sale. Some served on merchant vessels. Others labored in shipyards, building and repairing the vessels that carried goods from port to port. Still others worked in shops and other businesses where artisans made the equipment that outfitted those ships.
When residents of Newport and Providence drank tea sweetened with sugar, they realized that they consumed a commodity produced by enslaved men, women, and children. Yet not all of the enslaved labor that made it possible for them to enjoy sweetened beverages took place on faraway plantations. The sugar colonists purchased from local shopkeepers may very well have been transported on a vessel outfitted with ropes and other equipment made by slaves in their very own colony.