What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A negro fellow born in Jamaica, calls himself James Williams.”
An advertisement listing fugitive slaves who had been captured and “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” was a regular feature in newspapers published in South Carolina and Georgia in the late 1760s. The supplement that accompanied the November 22, 1768, edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, for example, included an advertisement that described three such runaways: Belfast, a “new negro fellow” who “has the mark of a shot on his left thigh, which he said was done by his master,” Jenny, a “negro wench of the Angola country … of a yellow complexion, with very small breasts,” and James Williams, a “negro fellow born in Jamaica” who had been “branded on his right shoulder.” The notice indicated where each had been “taken up” before being delivered to the workhouse.
Other details hinted at more complete stories that each captured runaway could tell. That James Williams identified himself by both first and last name, for instance, was notable. He certainly had not adopted the surname of Thomas Wheeler of Kingston, the man who currently held him in bondage. What circumstances had prompted Williams to adopt that surname? What meaning did it hold for him? Which experiences had shaped his life and convinced him to seize an opportunity to make an escape? According to the notice, Williams had been “hired to one Davis, first Lieutenant of the Sterling-Castle,” but he ran away when the ship was at Cape Fear. In addition to the brand on his shoulder, he also had “the mark of a shot just below his left knee, which he says was done at the siege of the Havanna” near the end of the Seven Years War. The brief description of James Williams in the “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” notice was an incomplete narrative of his life, as was the case for both Belfast and Jenny.
These truncated narratives stood in stark contrast to the poem, “To LIBERTY,” printed immediately to the right. Charles Crouch, printer of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, presented one notion of liberty for his readers to consider as colonists grappled with their deteriorating relationship with Parliament. Probably quite inadvertently, Crouch provided a companion piece with the “BROUGHT TO THE WORK-HOUSE” notice. Most likely very few readers acknowledged the juxtaposition, in part because white narrators framed the experiences of runaway slaves. Given the opportunity to tell their own stories, Belfast, Jenny, and James Williams would have advanced their own understandings of liberty. Enslaved men, women, and children did not need poets or printers to teach them any lessons about what it meant to be free. Through the act of running away, they testified that they already understood.