Who was the subject of an advertisement in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“TO BE SOLD, (For no Fault, but on Account of her breeding fast) A healthy likely Negroe Wench.”
For several weeks in February and March 1768 John Lyon inserted an advertisement for a “healthy likely Negroe Wench” and “two male Children” in the Providence Gazette. He informed potential buyers that the woman could “do all Kinds of House-Work” and also implied that she was capable of various sorts of agricultural labor since she “has lived on a Farm.” Lyon was uncertain of her age, estimating it at “about 20 or 25 Years.” He provided even less information about the children, though if they were sons of the woman offered for sale they would have been fairly young.
Like many other slaveholders who placed advertisements when they wished to sell their human property, Lyon assured prospective buyers that he sold this woman “For no Fault,” though he did provide a slightly different variation on that phrase. When slaveholders asserted “no fault” they testified that they were not parting with slaves due to physical or temperamental deficiencies. Presumably the woman in this advertisement was not particularly recalcitrant, disruptive, or disobedient. She was also “healthy,” though Lyon did not indicate whether she had previously survived small pox. That was often a selling point since it alerted prospective buyers that they did not need to worry about acquiring slaves only to lose them to a common illness.
Many slaveholders who stated that they sold slaves for “no fault” also added the phrase “but for want of employ,” signaling that they did not have sufficient tasks to assign to those slaves to justify continuing to provide them with food and shelter. Rather than setting them free, however, they aimed for a return on their investment by selling them. Lyon, however, offered a different clarification when he stated he sold an enslaved woman “For no Fault.” In this case, he decided to part with her “on Account of her breeding fast.” The unnamed woman had too many children too quickly as far as Lyon was concerned. Even if Lyon found this unmanageable, others who wished to profit from a steady supply of offspring would have considered this an advantage when purchasing the young woman.
Written from the slaveholder’s perspective, this advertisement obscures the experiences of the enslaved woman. In addition to deploying language that equated her with an animal – “breeding fast” – Lyon did not address the circumstances of her multiple pregnancies. Had the woman become pregnant voluntarily? Or had she been exploited for the sexual gratification of Lyon or other members of his household or the community, just as she had been exploited for her labor? Lyon placed the onus on the enslaved woman for having more children than he found convenient, but he did not acknowledge any possibility that she did not have any choice in whether she became pregnant. Like other enslaved women, she would have regularly found herself in situations in which she did not maintain ultimate power over her own body but was instead at the mercy of her master or other white men. Although this advertisement does not even offer the name of the “healthy likely Negroe Wench” it does suggest some of her experiences. It aids in excavating the history of enslaved women when considered in combination with other sources from the colonial era.