Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Negro Man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London.”
An advertisement in the January 7, 1773, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter informed readers of a novelty that they could see for themselves. “At Mr. M’Lean’s, Watch-Maker near the Town-House,” it read, “is a Negro Man whose extraordinary Genius has been assisted by one of the best Masters in London; he takes Faces at the lowest Rates.” For anyone intrigued by this notice, “Specimens of his Performances may be seen at said Place.” According to J.L. Bell, this “portrait artist was probably Prince Demah, enslaved to Henry Barnes of Marlborough. Barnes had recently taken the young man to London and arranged for lessons from the artist Robert Edge Pine. In February, Demah painted a portrait William Duguid,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Although the advertiser depicted the Black man as possessing “extraordinary Genius,” recognized and cultivated by a white artisan, free and enslaved Black men and women possessed a variety of skills and contributed to colonial commerce in many ways. They did far more than perform agricultural labor. From New England to Georgia, they worked alongside white artisans who often received credit for the items they produced or otherwise profited from their industry. In Boston, for instance, an enslaved family of printers, Peter Fleet and his sons Pompey and Caesar, worked in the printing office where Thomas Fleet published the Boston Evening-Post in the middle of the eighteenth century.
On the same day that the notice in the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter described the “extraordinary Genius” of a Black man at a local watchmaker’s workshop, an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette reported that Abraham, an enslaved man who liberated himself by running away from his enslaver on Christmas Day, was a “Cabinet-Maker by Trade.” In the same issue, William Wayne sought to hire out “Four Negro Painters … Who are capable of finishing a Piece of Work in any Manner their Employers may think proper to have it.” Other advertisements that offered enslaved men and women for sale or promised rewards for the capture and return of enslaved men and women who liberated themselves regularly indicated that they pursued skilled trades, including carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, and seamstresses.
A watchmaker in Boston treated the “extraordinary Genius” of a Black man as a marketing ploy to draw prospective customers to his shop, yet readers may not have been easily convinced that this announcement merited their attention. Through everyday experience, they knew that Black men and women worked at any number of skilled trades.