What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A likely new Negro Boy … just got clear of the Small-Pox.”
When he wished to sell an enslaved youth in the summer of 1768, James Roach turned to the pages of the Newport Gazette. He placed a brief advertisement that announced: “To be SOLD A likely new Negro Boy, about 13 Years of Age, fit to be put to a Trade, or any other Employment, just got clear of the Small-Pox.” Roach squeezed a significant amount of information into this short advertisement. In addition to identifying the approximate age of the unnamed youth he also revealed that the “new Negro Boy” did not yet possess any particular skills or training that might make him suitable for purchase by a particular master. Instead, he was “fit to be put to a Trade, or any other Employment.” With some instruction, a prospective buyer could put the enslaved youth to work on a farm, in a household, or in a workshop. Roach also made a nod towards the slave’s origins. That he was a “new Negro Boy” meant that he was an African who had survived the Middle Passage and transshipment within the colonies rather than an African American born in the colonies.
Furthermore, the reference to surviving smallpox was not inconsequential. It was a standard element in advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children, operating as a guarantee of sorts when it came to the health of those offered for sale. Smallpox, one of the most deadly diseases of the eighteenth century, could only be contracted once. It did not discriminate; having survived smallpox then made people – whether enslaved or free – immune. In advising prospective buyers that the youth offered for sale “just got clear of the Small-Pox,” Roach assured them that this particular slave was a safe investment. Choosing to purchase the unnamed youth did not involve the risk that he might soon afterward become ill with smallpox and perhaps not survive. This small bit of medical knowledge served an important purpose, providing a safeguard on the buyer’s investment.