What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ABSENTED himself … a negro fellow named BROMLEY.”
Throughout the summer of 1768 Thomas Shirley inserted the same advertisement in all three newspapers published in Charleston, South Carolina. Dated June 8, Shirley’s notice had two parts. In the shorter first portion Shirley described a yawl either “DRIFTED or STOLEN from the Brigantine Prince-of-Wales, Thomas Mason, Master.” He offered a “TWO DOLLARS reward” for its return. In a much lengthier second portion Shirley described Cyrus and Bromley, two enslaved men, who had “ABSENTED themselves … from the Schooner Mary, John Doran, Master.” Shirley did not suspect that the runaways had stolen the yawl but instead reported that he suspected “they went off in a Canoe for Ponpon, where Bromley has a wife who belongs to William Harvey.” Shirley provided approximate ages and heights for both fugitives. He also noted that Cyrus “has both his ears cropt” and “his cheeks branded,” likely as punishment for prior acts of disobedience. The enslaved man must have earned some notoriety in the area. Shirley determined that he was “so well known as to need no further description.” As for Bromley, Shirley indicated that he sometimes went by the name Chippenham and “speaks good English.” He concluded by offering rewards for the capture and return of the runaways as well as rewards for information leading to the conviction of anyone who provided them assistance.
That advertisement appeared for the last time in early September. Starting with the September 19 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette, a much shorter notice replaced it. Shirley no longer advertised the missing yawl or the infamous Cyrus, but he continued to seek the capture and return of Bromley. He offered a little more information to help readers recognize the fugitive, noting the clothing he wore when he made his escape: “a seaman’s jacket, trowsers and check shirt.” Shirley also stated that Bromley was “well known in Charles-Town and Winyaw, having sailed a considerable time with Captain Henry Richardson.”
What promoted theses revisions to an advertisement that ran for nearly three months? Had Cyrus been captured? Did Shirley receive information indicating that Cyrus was somehow beyond his reach? Had something else happened that caused Shirley to cease advertising Cyrus? The new advertisement no longer mentioned Bromley’s wife in Ponpon. Why not? Had she undergone so much interrogation and surveillance that Shirley determined that his assumption that Bromley would make his way to her was a false lead? What kinds of experiences did she have after her husband and an accomplice fled from Shirley? Perhaps the slaveholder placed too much emphasis on Bromley’s possible attempt to seek refuge with his wife. In the new advertisement he acknowledged that Bromley previously experienced a fair amount of mobility when hired out as a sailor with Captain Richardson. That may have given Bromley more room to maneuver and make good on his escape rather than placing his wife in greater danger by drawing her into a conspiracy.
Like every other runaway advertisement, this one tells a truncated story filtered through the perspective of the slaveholder who composed and placed the notice in the public prints. Unlike most other runaway advertisements, this one provides a second chapter, yet it still raises as many questions as it answers. It does confirm that Bromley continued to elude Shirley, at least for the moment, but it does not definitively reveal anything more about Cyrus or Bromley’s unnamed wife.