GUEST CURATOR: Matthew Ringstaff
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“ABOUT TWENTY-ONE VALUABLE PLANTATION SLAVES.”
On April 19, 1769, Benjamin Fox put an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette to sell a plantation. The advertisement boldly stated “ABOUT TWENTY ONE VALUABLE PLANTATION SLAVES.” I was curious about the lives of plantation slaves and learned more from the Understanding Slavery Institute sponsored by several museums in Great Britain. According to the Understanding Slavery Institute, “plantations depended on skilled slaves – masons, joiners, coopers, metalworkers – to keep factories, fields, equipment and transport prepared and functioning. The needs of the wider slave community were served by other vital workers: cooks, nurses, and seamstresses.” However, other slaves were very skilled in agriculture. Those slaves were responsible for more important decisions on the plantation. They were sometimes responsible for determining when sugar cane was ready for harvest or when tobacco leaves were ideal for picking or “how best to pack, load, and transport the commodities grown on the plantation.” Slaves had occupations and could be traded and sold from plantation to plantation as their services were required.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Although this particular advertisement did not, other advertisements concerning enslaved men and women often listed their skills or occupations. As Matt indicates, enslaved artisans contributed far more than labor to colonial commerce. Their involuntary contributions also included their skill and expertise.
Consider the advertisements that ran in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette earlier in the same week as this advertisement from the Georgia Gazette. One offered to sell a “Valuable NEGRO MAN” … who was “well qualified for a gentleman’s servant, or as a waiter in a tavern.” Another advertisement described an enslaved man who was “a very good GARDINER.” In both instances, they skillfully accomplished tasks beyond agricultural labor in the fields on plantations.
In the course of describing a plantation for sale, yet another advertisement also listed “about thirty likely NEGROES,” many best suited for working in the fields but some possessing other valuable skills. They included “a very good bricklayer, a driver, and two sawyers” along with seventeen considered “fit for the field or boat-work.” In addition, John Matthews once again ran an advertisement that had appeared for months. He sought to sell both a plot of land and an enslaved laundress. He also mentioned that he “hath not yet sold his negro Shoe-makers” and could thus supply customers with boots and shoes “as usual.” Matthews had previously attempted to sell those shoemakers, placing advertisements in Charleston’s newspapers for months. He proclaimed that “they have done all my business for nine Years past, and are at least equal to any Negroes of the Trade in this Province.” Matthews stated that he intended to “decline Shoemaking,” but his advertisement suggests that he supervised skilled enslaved artisans rather than making any shoes himself.
Considering advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children collectively, along with other sources, reveals the broad range of skills they possessed and occupations they followed in eighteenth-century America. While many did indeed labor in the fields on plantations, a significant number worked in diverse settings at various occupations that required specialized skills.