Who were the subjects of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY WITH … A SQUARE STERN PILOT-BOAT.”
When Captain Samuel Covell departed Savannah for Barbados in early February 1768 the Elizabeth and Mary sailed without three members of its crew. James Colmy, John Roche, and Alexander Sim had deserted while the ship was in port. That these sailors chose not to continue on the Elizabeth and Mary was not itself out of the ordinary, but their choice to steal a boat from William Lyford attracted more attention than they might otherwise have received.
Lyford placed an advertisement in the February 10 edition of the Georgia Gazette, the first issue published after Colmy, Roche, and Sim stole his “SQUARE STERN PILOT-BOAT” sometime in the night of February 5. To aid in apprehending the fugitive seamen, Lyford provided descriptions of the thieves and his boat. In addition, he indicated that one of his slaves had been kidnapped in the process of stealing his boat. He reported that “there was on board a DARK INDIAN FELLOW, who speaks good English, also the property of the said William Lyford, who it is supposed was asleep in the hold when the above men stole the vessel.”
Lyford may have been correct that the unnamed “INDIAN FELLOW” had been asleep and even unnoticed by the thieves when they made off with his pilot boat, but that was not the only possibility. Sensing an opportunity to gain his freedom, the enslaved Indian may have collaborated with the fugitive sailors in stealing the vessel, choosing not to resist or raise an alarm even if he had been surprised when they first boarded. If he was familiar with local waterways, the unnamed Indian could have been a valuable ally in making the escape and avoiding detection. Colmy, Roche, and Sim may have welcomed him as a partner in their adventure. After all, eighteenth-century mariners practiced an egalitarianism that often overlooked race in favor of emphasizing skill, status, and similar experiences. The “INDIAN FELLOW” and the sailors may have both embraced circumstances that allowed them to cooperate for mutual benefit as they ran away from the masters – whether slaveholders or captains – who exercised power over them.