Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN AWAY … A NEGROE FELLOW named WILL.”
The Slavery Adverts 250 Project aims to demonstrate that eighteenth-century newspapers contributed to the perpetuation of slavery in colonial America and the new nation. Yet this was not a relationship that merely benefited slaveholders through the continued exploitation of enslaved men, women, and children. Printers also benefitted, as did the public that consumed all sorts of information that circulated in newspapers. The revenues generated from advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children made significant contributions to the economic viability of eighteenth-century newspapers.
Consider, for example, the final page of the June 21, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette. Advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children have been outlined in red. Ten appeared on that page (as well as two others on the previous page). Of the ten on the final page, five offered enslaved people for sale, one sought to purchase enslaved people, two offered rewards for runaways who escaped from bondage, and two described fugitives that had been captured and imprisoned. Collectively, these advertisements bolstered not only the market for buying and selling human property but also a culture of surveillance of Black people.
These advertisements also represented significant revenue for James Johnston, the printer of the Georgia Gazette. Like most other newspapers published in 1769, a standard issue of the Georgia Gazette consisted of four pages created by printing two pages on each side of a broadsheet and then folding it in half. With two columns per page, Johnston distributed a total of eight columns of content to subscribers and other readers in each issue. The advertisements concerning enslaved men, women, and children in the June 21 edition accounted for an entire column, a substantial proportion of the issue.
Elsewhere in the newspaper Johnston inserted news items, many of them concerning the deteriorating relationship between Britain and the colonies. These articles originated in Boston, London, and other faraway places. Readers of the Georgia Gazette had access to information about the imperial crisis, including resistance efforts throughout the colonies, in part because the fees generated from advertisements for enslaved men, women, and children contributed to the ongoing publication of the colony’s only newspaper. Enslavement and liberty appeared in stark contrast in the pages of the newspaper but also in the ledger kept by the printer. Articles and editorials advocating liberty found their way before the eyes of readers thanks to advertising fees paid for the purpose of sustaining slavery.