October 17

GUEST CURATOR: Daniel Carito

Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (October 17, 1771).
“A likely Negro Fellow named PRINCE … he is a Spaniard.”

In the fall of 1771, Robert Donald, an enslaver in Virginia, advertised a reward of forty shillings for Prince, “a likely Negro fellow” who liberated himself by running away.  The advertisement sparked my interest because Donald mentioned that not only did Prince come from Spanish descent but also was “an excellent swimmer, and dives remarkably well” and labeled as a “water Negro.”  My interest grew even further because in “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes’: From Britain to America,” Charles R. Foy explains how many Black sailors on Spanish vessels were captured by British and North American mariners, labeled as commodities and sold into slavery: “Between 1721 and 1748 at least one hundred and thirty-five black mariners were condemned as prize goods…  Overall, the number of Prize Negroes in North America from 1713 to1783 is estimated to exceed 500.”[1] Also, Foy argues that enslaved Black mariners were sometimes the main instigators when it came to revolting against their enslavers: “Spanish Prize Negroes often were leaders in resisting slavery in British North America.”[2]

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Enslaved men and women who liberated themselves often left few traces in the archival record.  The advertisements that encouraged colonists to engage in surveillance of Black people to determine if they matched descriptions of runaways in the newspapers and offered rewards for the capture and return of enslaved people may have been the only documents that recorded any aspect of their lives.  In such instances, enslaved people seeking freedom did not tell their own stories, but instead had their experiences mediated through the perspectives of the enslavers who composed the advertisements.

If Prince, as he was called by his enslaver, were indeed a Spanish “Prize Negro” then other kinds of documents may have recorded some of his experiences.  Additional archival work might uncover additional traces of Prince’s life before he arrived in Virginia.  Even if we managed to locate Prince in other sources, his wife and children would likely remain elusive, their stories even more fragmented and obscured than that of their husband and father.  Donald suspected that Prince “took the Road to Charles City, where he had a Wife and Children at Mr. Acrill’s.”  That brief reference to Prince’s family raises more questions than it answers.  How long had Prince and his wife been a couple?  How many children did they have?  How old were the children at the time?  How long had it been since the rest of the family had seen Prince?  Were his wife and children still in Charles City?

Donald recorded several characteristics to identify Prince, including his height, his clothing, and his manner of speaking (“fast and thick”).  The enslaver described Prince as an “excellent Swimmer” and diver who “had on such Clothes as Watermen generally wear.”  Prince’s wife and children in Charles City were just one more detail to Donald and colonists who read the advertisement, but they were not just another detail to Prince or his family.  Donald’s brief narrative about Prince certainly did not match how the enslaved man would have described himself or the most important people in his life.

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[1] Charles R. Foy, “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes’: From Britain to America,” Slavery and Abolition 31, no. 3(September 2010): 381.

[2] Foy, “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes,’” 384.