What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“ABSENTED herself … a tall stout NEGRO … named LUCY.”
Many of the advertisements in the November 15, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette offered enslaved men, women, and children for sale, but several others countered those stories of exploitation with stories of liberation. That was not how Mordecai Myers, John Beale, or James Roulain saw it when they described the Black people known to them as Lucy, Sue, and Agrippa who had “ABSENTED” themselves or “RUN AWAY,” as their advertisements proclaimed in capital letters to catch the attention of readers. Yet Lucy, Sue, Agrippa, and countless other enslaved people knew that they had not “RUN AWAY.” Instead, they liberated themselves from the enslavers who held them in bondage.
Yet claiming freedom was not as easy as putting distance between themselves and those who treated them as commodities. Myers, Beale, and Roulain placed advertisements in a newspaper that circulated in Charleston, throughout South Carolina, and beyond. They provided descriptions of Lucy, Sue, and Agrippa. They offered rewards for capturing and returning them as well as rewards for information that led to the conviction of anyone, white or Black, who helped or “harboured” Lucy, Sue, and Agrippa. Beale and Roulain warned “Masters of Vessels” not to transport these fugitives seeking freedom to other colonies.
Myers, Beale, and Roulain suggested some of the strategies that Lucy, Sue, and Agrippa deployed to make good on their escape from bondage. Myers noted that Lucy wore “a Callico Petticoat and Jacket,” but suspected that she would change her clothing to elude detection since he “took other Cloaths with her.” Beale suspected that Sue had the assistance of an enslaved man, Mingo, since the two had been spotted together in Charleston. For his part, Roulain could not conceive of Agrippa desiring liberty for himself. He asserted that “some malicious Person” persuaded the enslaved man to depart since Agrippa “always behaved himself extremely well” over the course of eighteenth years laboring on Roulain’s schooner.
These enslavers and many others throughout the colonies who placed such advertisements attempted to enlist others in a culture of surveillance that helped to maintain slavery. They presented descriptions with the intention that readers, whether or not they were enslavers, would scrutinize Black people they encountered, carefully assessing their bodies, clothing, and comportment. They offered rewards as a means of enticing assistance in capturing enslaved people who liberated themselves and returning them to bondage while simultaneously threatening legal action against anyone who exhibited the courage, compassion, or character to aid enslaved men and women who seized their own liberty. The press that so often promoted liberty for white colonists in the era of the American Revolution was also an important tool in curtailing liberty for enslaved Africans and African Americans.