Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Negro Man Servant, named CAESAR … sometimes pretends to be free.”
If readers perused the June 20, 1772, edition of the Providence Gazette from the first page to the last, the first advertisement they encountered concerned “a Negro Man Servant, named Caesar” who “RAN away” earlier in the month. On behalf of Mrs. Payson, a widow in Woodstock, Connecticut, Paul Tew placed a notice that described Caesar, offered a reward for his capture and return, and threatened anyone who assisted him with prosecution. That advertisement appeared immediately below a short news article about a spinning bee that took place in Barrington, Rhode Island, a few days earlier. Even as John Carter, the printer of the Providence Gazette, celebrated the industriousness and patriotism of “a Number of Ladies” who participated in safeguarding liberty by producing linen yarn as an alternative to imported textiles, he disseminated an advertisement that sought to deprive Caesar of his liberty. The revenue Carter generated from that advertisement helped to make coverage of the spinning bee possible.
Tew provided an extensive description of Caesar that included his age, physical characteristics, linguistic ability, and clothing. He invited colonizers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island who read the Providence Gazette, whether or not they were enslavers themselves, to participate in the surveillance of Black men to determine if anyone they saw or met matched the description in the newspaper. Tew encouraged colonizers to take note of the appearance, comportment, and speech of Black men, judging for themselves what constituted “speak[ing] tolerable good English.” Complicity in perpetuating slavery extended beyond Tew, the widow Payson, and the printer of the Providence Gazette to include readers who scrutinized Black men and, especially, those who confronted and detained anyone they suspected of being Caesar. Tew reported that Caesar “sometimes pretends to be free,” but even being free did not protect Black men and women from inspection and harassment by colonizers accustomed to slavery as part of everyday life, even in New England, during the colonial era.