What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“RUN away … a Negro Man Servant, named Pomp.”
Like all newspapers published in colonial America, the Providence Gazette ran several sorts of “runaway” advertisements. These included notices about indentured servants and apprentices who departed from their masters before their time of service concluded. Other notices described enslaved people who seized their liberty, offering rewards to readers who captured them and returned them to bondage. Husbands also turned to the public prints to place notices about disobedient wives who “eloped” from them. Unlike the advertisements for indentured servants, apprentices, and enslaved people, these did not seek the return of wives to their husbands but instead warned that the aggrieved spouse would no longer pay debts accumulated by their absent wives. The subjects of these notices were uniformly depicted as the transgressors, yet the advertisements implicitly testified to discord and exploitation perpetrated by the advertisers. Runaways exercised one form of power available to them as they sought to improve their circumstances.
The various kinds of runaway advertisements promoted a culture of surveillance in early America, enlisting colonists to scrutinize the bodies, clothing, and comportment of people they encountered. In particular, such notices focused attention on people who, at a glance, appeared to belong among the ranks of the lower sorts. The November 3, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette featured an advertisement concerning Pomp (or Pompey), “a Negro Man Servant,” who escaped from his enslaver. Aaron Waitt described Pomp’s age, physical characteristics, including a scar on his forehead, clothing, and linguistic ability, noting that he “speaks good English.” Waitt resided in Salem, Massachusetts, and also placed notices in the Essex Gazette, the newspaper published in that town. Yet he apparently traced Pomp as far as Rhode Island, asserting that he received reports that the fugitive seeking freedom boarded the Free Mason when it sailed from East Greenwich to New York and Carolina. Waitt used the public prints to encourage surveillance of Black men while targeting Pomp far beyond the towns in the vicinity of Salem. No matter the distance that Pomp put between himself and his enslaver, he had to be wary about encountering colonists who had seen the advertisements that described him and offered rewards for his capture and return.