GUEST CURATOR: Chloe Amour
Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“He is branded on the breast IW in small letters.”
In this particular advertisement for a runaway slave, the vivid description suggests the desperation to find him. Including a reward made the search that much more enticing. A key detail in the advertisement states the slave, named Bristol, was “Angola born.” He was brought to the West Indies, then eventually to Georgia. This implies the slave has been sold multiple times. Coming from the West Indies with a brand also became a telltale sign he had previous masters. In addition, Bristol speaks “pretty good English,” which implies he had been enslaved long enough to learn the language. With the demand for slave labor and the revenue it produced, masters circulated their slaves for profit. The amount of information and detail provided in the advertisement allows for readers to reconstruct the story of Bristol.
The brand on Bristol’s breast, “IW in small letters,” helped to identify him. Betty Wood examines the practice of branding enslaved people: “If they had not been branded before leaving Africa, then there was a good chance that it would happen to them upon their arrival in America.” Branding, using a “red-hot iron,” was a common technique to leave an imprint upon the bodies of slaves. Typically, the brand was stamped on the chest, shoulder, or cheek. The act of branding by slave owners made a bold statement; it displayed complete ownership and possession of the slave. The visual image of a brand made a statement, to deny the humanity of people of African origin. To put branding in perspective, this type of treatment was used on animals, such as cattle and horses, to keep track of them if they became lost. Similar to the runaway slave Bristol, the origins of other enslaved people could be traced through the symbol branded upon their body.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
By the time George McIntosh’s advertisement concerning Bristol ran in the March 1, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette, the runaway had been absent for nearly seven weeks. McIntosh reported that Bristol “WENT AWAY” on January 13. Also by early March the advertisement would have been familiar to colonists who regularly read the Georgia Gazette. Dated “17th January, 1769,” it appeared in its sixth consecutive issue. McIntosh apparently submitted it to the printing office too late for inclusion in the January 18 edition, but starting on January 25 the advertisement appeared every week. By then, Bristol had been “AWAY” from McIntosh’s plantation for nearly two weeks. In the several weeks since, he continued to make good on his escape. Perhaps he had learned from a previous failed attempt and crafted a better plan. McIntosh stated that Bristol had been “taken up once before” in the area of Sunbury and Midway.
The longevity of McIntosh’s advertisement describing a man who had escaped from bondage was hardly unique, at least not compared to other advertisements that described runaways and offered rewards for their capture and return. Some ran for as long as six months before being discontinued. When such advertisements disappeared from the pages of the Georgia Gazette after so long, it most likely indicated that slaveholders decided not to make further investments in alerting the public about the runaways. After seeing the same advertisements for months, readers were probably well aware of the descriptions of the runaways and the circumstances of their escapes.
In contrast to the constant republishing of runaway advertisements, other sorts of paid notices usually ran for a much more limited time. Advertisements for consumer goods and services, for example, typically ran for three or four weeks. Merchants and shopkeepers did not make the same investment in notifying the public about their wares as slaveholders made in their attempts to reclaim their human property. Advertisements for runaway slaves were an important revenue stream for the Georgia Gazette not only because colonists placed so many of them but also because those advertisements ran for so much longer than any others.
 Betty Wood, Slavery in Colonial America, 1619-1776 (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 28.