Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“NED, a Mulatto Fellow belonging to me, intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.”
Alexander Purdie and John Dixon generated significant revenue for the Virginia Gazette by publishing advertisements about enslaved people. The November 12, 1774, edition, for instance, carried fourteen such advertisements. Five of them presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale. The remainder concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves by running away from the colonizers who held them in bondage. Four of the advertisements provided description of fugitives seeking freedom and offered rewards for their capture and return, including one about Edith who escaped from her enslaver “upwards of two Years ago.” Jailers published four other advertisements in which they described Black men “COMMITTED” to their jails and called on their enslavers “to pay Charges, and fetch [them] away.”
The final advertisement also concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves, but it did not document an attempt already made. Instead, Giles Samuel, Sr., sought to preemptively foil any plans made by Ned, “a Mulatto Fellow belonging to [him].” The enslaver confided that he had “great reason to believe” that Ned “intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.” Samuel believed that Ned had been working toward that goal by “endeavouring to obtain a Pass” in order that he “may pass for a Freeman” and make good on his escape. In response, the enslaver made a declaration that appeared in many advertisements that described enslaved men and women who liberated themselves: “I hereby caution all Masters of Vessels from carrying him off at their Peril.” By “Peril,” Samuel did not mean that Ned posed any danger but rather that the enslaver would invoke laws designed to punish anyone who assisted enslaved people in liberating themselves. Colonizers understood something that the phrase “liberating themselves” does not fully capture. Black men and women who liberated themselves by running away and remaining hidden or beyond the reach of their enslavers often did so with the aid of family, friends, and others in extended communities.
That made some enslavers all the more vigilant. Samuel suspected that Ned already had a plan in motion. Rather than wait for the enslaved man to run away and then run advertisements, Samuel issued a warning to anyone who might aid him in acquiring a forged pass or leaving the colony. In so doing, he deployed the power of the press to maintain his authority over the enslaved man, one more factor that worked to the advantage of enslavers in the era of the American Revolution.