What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Any person that may bring me his head, hand, or foot, after that time, shall be rewarded.”
To one extent or another, each newspaper advertisement concerning slaves testified to a horrific system of bondage, but Joseph Gibbons’s notice concerning Limus, a runaway, exhibited even greater brutality than most. In several consecutive issues of the Georgia Gazette, Gibbons presented a proposition for the fugitive: “If the said Limus will return to his duty in ten days he shall not be whipped, but if not, any person that may bring me his head, hand, or foot, after that time, shall be rewarded.” Most slaveholders called on others to assist in the capture of runaways, promising rewards for the safe return of their human property. They did not usually mention any consequences the runaways might eventually endure. Gibbons, on the other hand, did not reserve inflicting punishments on Limus as his sole domain. Instead, he encouraged the dismemberment or even murder of the runaway.
That Gibbons extended an alternative to this ruthless punishment indicates that he expected that Limus had some sort of access to information that appeared in the colony’s only newspaper. Why attempt to strike a bargain that if Limus “will return to his duty in ten days he shall not be whipped” unless he believed that some combination of reading and conversation would eventually transmit his terms to the runaway? The merciless threat of rewarding “any person that may bring his head, hand, or foot” after the deadline had passed also would have worked more effectively if Gibbons anticipated that Limus would become aware of it. These stark choices were designed to terrorize and persuade the fugitive to return of his own accord, but they depended on overlapping networks of white and black colonists spreading news via print and word of mouth. Even though the vast majority of slaves were not literate, they still had means of acquiring and sharing news in early America. Even though white colonists may not have always been aware or attempted to downplay how much slaves knew about the contents of newspapers, some of them did acknowledge that slaves did indeed have access to information that appeared in the public prints.