What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A negro Man named TOM … has a scar on one of his wrists.”
The final issue of the New-London Gazette published in 1769 included several advertisements that encouraged surveillance of Black men, women, and children. The last column consisted almost entirely of advertisements concerning enslaved people who escaped from those who held them in bondage. Those enslaved people seized their own liberty at the same time that colonists complained about their supposed enslavement to Britain as a result of various measures enacted by Parliament, including duties levied on certain imported goods by the Townshend Acts.
The advertisements in the New-London Gazette encouraged readers to begin the new year by carefully observing Black people they encountered, assessing whether they matched the descriptions published in the newspaper. Each offered a reward as an incentive for participating in an eighteenth-century version of racial profiling, but only if that participation resulted in the capture and recovery of enslaved people who “Ran-away from their Master.”
Theophilus Hopkins advised colonists that Joseph Cuffe “speaks good English [and] very well understands playing on a violin.” Two other characteristics may have made him even easier to identify: he “has lost both his great toes” and he “went off in company with a small indian squaw.” Hopkins reported that Cuffe had been spotted with the Indian woman in the eastern part of Connecticut in the time since making his escape. In so doing, he encouraged colonists not only to observe individual Black people but also to take note of the company they kept.
Samuel Chapman similarly emphasized looking for specific configurations of people, in this instance a family that consisted of Newport, “a Negro Man Servant … of a light swarthy Complexion,” his wife, Sarah, and six children ranging in age from two to fifteen. The three eldest were boys – Rufus, Israel, and Gershon – followed by two girls – Rhena and Chloe – and then another boy – Amos. Like Cuffe, Newport could also be recognized by a unique physical attribute: he “has lost the Top of one or two of his Fingers on one Hand, by the firing of a Pistol.” Observers may have detected that more readily than Cuffe’s missing toes, but in each instance they were encouraged to engage in careful scrutiny of Black bodies.
Isaac Tanner of South Kingston, Rhode Island, was so eager to recapture “a negro Man named TOM” that he offered “SIX DOLLARS reward” in an advertisement in the New-London Gazette, apparently suspecting that Tom made his way to Connecticut. Tanner noted that the fugitive “often calls himself TOM CARD,” suggesting that he asserted agency in shaping his identity before making his escape. Tanner described the clothes that Card wore when he departed, but also stated that he “has a scar on one of his wrists.” Once again, an advertiser invited readers of the New-London Gazette to carefully examine Black bodies to identify or eliminate the Black people they encountered as suspected runaways.
This concentration of advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children who escaped on the final page of the New-London Gazette testifies to the widespread surveillance of Black bodies in the colonies on the eve of the American Revolution. This was not a feature of southern colonies alone. Instead, from Georgia to New England, enslavers mobilized the press for purposes of surveillance of Black people in service of recapturing those who escaped.