GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … A NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK.”
This advertisement for a runaway “NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK,” includes a description of some injuries: “a large scar on left side of his head cut by a hanger, and a scar upon his ear by the same stroke, and several cuts upon his body.” These injuries could have been a reason why Jack was motivated to try to escape. Running away was one form of resistance enslaved men and women attempted. According to James H. Sweet, “Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century.” This advertisement was part of a long history of slave resistance that had been going on ever since slaves arrived in America almost 150 years earlier. Slaves resisted in other ways if masters “increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely … by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production.”
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Jack’s story was not unique. The advertisements in the April 12, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette chronicled the attempts of several other enslaved men in their endeavors to escape from bondage. Immediately above the advertisement that described Jack, another announced that a “NEGROE FELLOW, named ABRAM” who “talks good English” had made his escape nearly three weeks earlier. Almost immediately to the left, another advertisement documented the escape of a “NEGROE BOY named ROBIN, well known in Savannah” as well as “SEVEN NEGROE FELLOWS, named QUAMINA, PRINCE, HARRY, SAWNEY, POMPEY, JAMIE this country born, and another of the same name of the Angola country.”
That same issue also included advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children whose attempts to escape had failed. One reported that a “NEGRO FELLOW, and A WENCH, with A CHILD about two months old” had been “TAKEN UP” about twenty miles from Augusta near the end of January. The arrival of the child may have been the primary motivation for Sampson and Molly to flee when they did, departing shortly after Molly gave birth. Two other advertisements described captured runaways who had been “Brought to the Work-house” until slaveholders claimed them, a “NEW NEGRO FELLOW, who calls himself CATO” and Michael, a “TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW … of the Coromantee country.” These prisoners each considered the possible punishments for running away worth the risk of obtaining their freedom if they managed to make it to safety without being captured.
Some of their advertisements were among the most visible items in the Georgia Gazette. The advertisement about Abram, for instance, featured a crude woodcut of an enslaved man on the run. It was one of only four visual images in the entire issue. Two other advertisements for freight and passage had woodcuts of ships; the masthead depicted a lion and unicorn flanking a crown. The woodcut drew attention to the description of Abram, just as the headline “Brought to the Work-house” in gothic type distinguished those advertisements from others. The compositor deployed that font sparingly throughout the rest of the issue, but did so consistently for “Brought to the Work-house” advertisements, not only in the April 12 issue but week after week. These decisions about typography and graphic design significantly increased the visibility of many advertisements about enslaved men and women who attempted to escape, underscoring how disruptive and dangerous colonists considered such acts of resistance.