What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A few new Negroes, will be sold on the most reasonable terms.”
The partnership of Cowper and Telfairs repeatedly inserted a list-style advertisement in the Georgia Gazette in the fall of 1768. Extending nearly half a column, the advertisement enumerated dozens of items included among the “Compleat and Large ASSORTMENT of EUROPEAN and EAST-INDIA GOODS” that Cowper and Telfairs had imported from London. Their inventory included everything from “black, buff, and crimson wove breeches” to “a large assortment of printed linens, cottons, and chintzes” to “gunpowder and shot” to “ironmongery of various kinds.” To further underscore the vast array of choices they made available to consumers, the partners indicated that all the merchandise listed in their advertisement was “exclusive of many other articles too tedious to mention.”
Running this sort of advertisement was a familiar strategy for Cowper and Telfairs. Although they did not maintain a constant presence in the Georgia Gazette, they periodically placed similar notices. For instance, they inserted a notice of a comparable length the previous fall as well as a shorter one two years earlier. This advertisement, however, included one commodity that distinguished it from some of those earlier advertisements. Cowper and Telfairs trafficked in slaves, reducing “a few new Negroes” to goods to be sold alongside “glass ware of different kinds” and “womens pumps and shoes.”
The advertisement concluded with a short paragraph that consisted of only two lines. It listed three items presumably shipped from the Caribbean rather than via “the SHIP GEORGIA PACKET … from LONDON.” In addition to textiles, housewares, and hardware, Cowper and Telfairs advised that “Good rum, the very best muscovado sugar, and a few new Negroes, will be sold on the most reasonable terms for cash or a short credit.” The trade in enslaved men, women, and children was so enmeshed in the networks of exchange that crisscrossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century that neither the advertisers who placed hits notice nor the prospective customers who read it would have considered it peculiar to mention human commodities almost as an afterthought after the fans, buttons, and so many other baubles that comprised the rest of the advertisement.
Advertisements for slaves were ubiquitous in colonial newspapers, especially the Georgia Gazette. Notices concerning enslaved people for sale, runaways, and captured fugitives generated revenues that contributed to the continued operation of eighteenth-century newspapers. Those notices also harnessed the power of print to buttress a system of exploitation, inviting all readers, whether they owned slaves or not, to participate in buying and selling enslaved people as well as encouraging them to participate in the surveillance of black people to capture any who attempted to escape. Many of these advertisements were easy to recognize at a glance because they exclusively focused on slaves for sale or fugitives, but today’s advertisement from Cowper and Telfairs demonstrates that even some advertisements that did not focus primarily on enslaved people undergirded the system of bondage in early America. The casual mention of “a few new Negroes” at the end of an extensive list of merchandise suggested the impossibility of separating slavery from commerce in Georgia on the eve of the American Revolution.