Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, A Very fine Negro Boy.”
Three issues. That was how long it took James Rivington to become a broker in the slave trade when he launched Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer or the Connecticut, New-Jersey, Hudson’s-River and Quebec Weekly Advertiser in the spring of 1773. The Adverts 250 Project has examined some of the advertisements that appeared in the first and second issues of that newspaper. With the third issue, the Slavery Adverts 250 Project begins chronicling advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children that appeared in Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer.
Rivington, like other colonial printers, generated revenues by publishing and disseminating such advertisements, yet their complicity in perpetuating slavery and the slave trade did not end there. When they published advertisements that provided descriptions of enslaved people who liberated themselves by running away from their enslavers and offered rewards for their capture and return, colonial printers encouraged and facilitated the widespread surveillance of Black men and women, including by colonizers who did not purport to own enslaved people themselves. When colonial printers instructed readers to “Enquire of the Printer” for more information about enslaved people for sale, they became brokers in the transactions.
Such was the case with an advertisement in the May 6, 1773, edition of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer. In just five short lines, Rivington implicated himself in perpetuating slavery and the slave trade: “TO BE SOLD, A Very fine Negro Boy, about seventeen years old, capable of waiting on a gentleman, and in a family extremly useful, he is strong, well built, and remarkably sober, and well worth £. 100. Enquire of the Printer.” In his examination of “Enquire of the Printer” advertisements, Jordan E. Taylor notes, “Printers had several reasons to traffic enslaved people. Many probably viewed this work as a way of encouraging advertisers. To refuse to perform this service may have led an advertiser to taker his or her business to competitors.”
Rivington’s competitors certainly did not refuse such business. On the same day that Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer ran its first “Enquire of the Printer” advertisement, an advertisement describing and offering a reward for Cush, an enslaved man who liberated himself from John Foster of Southampton on Long Island, ran in John Holt’s New-York Journal. Earlier in the week, Hugh Gaine published three advertisements concerning enslaved people in his New-York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, one seeking a “NEGROE man-servant,” another offering an enslaved woman for sale, and the third describing and offering a reward for Sam, an enslaved man who could speak English and Dutch. Gaine acted as the broker in the first advertisement, instructing anyone willing to hire out an enslaved “NEGROE man-servant” to learn more “by applying to the printer.”
Still, Rivington made a choice about whether to participate in this aspect of the printing business, just as Nathaniel Mills and John Hicks did when they became proprietors of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Post-Boy. Three days before Rivington published his first advertisement concerning an enslaved person, Mills and Hicks published theirs, joining with other printers in Boston who carried the same notice in their newspapers. The following week, the fourth issue of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer carried its first advertisement about an enslaved man, Pompey, who liberated himself. Rivington had made his editorial decision about what he was willing to publish among the advertisements in his newspaper. He did not seem to hesitate in doing so.
 Jordan E. Taylor, “Enquire of the Printer: Newspaper Advertising and the Moral Economy of the North American Slave Trade, 1704-1807,” Early American Studies 18, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 296.