November 15

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

Virginia Gazette [Purdie and Dixon] (November 12, 1772).

“NED, a Mulatto Fellow belonging to me, intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.”

Alexander Purdie and John Dixon generated significant revenue for the Virginia Gazette by publishing advertisements about enslaved people.  The November 12, 1774, edition, for instance, carried fourteen such advertisements.  Five of them presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale.  The remainder concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves by running away from the colonizers who held them in bondage.  Four of the advertisements provided description of fugitives seeking freedom and offered rewards for their capture and return, including one about Edith who escaped from her enslaver “upwards of two Years ago.”  Jailers published four other advertisements in which they described Black men “COMMITTED” to their jails and called on their enslavers “to pay Charges, and fetch [them] away.”

The final advertisement also concerned enslaved people who attempted to liberate themselves, but it did not document an attempt already made.  Instead, Giles Samuel, Sr., sought to preemptively foil any plans made by Ned, “a Mulatto Fellow belonging to [him].”  The enslaver confided that he had “great reason to believe” that Ned “intends procuring a Passage in some Vessel or other to get out of the Colony.”  Samuel believed that Ned had been working toward that goal by “endeavouring to obtain a Pass” in order that he “may pass for a Freeman” and make good on his escape.  In response, the enslaver made a declaration that appeared in many advertisements that described enslaved men and women who liberated themselves: “I hereby caution all Masters of Vessels from carrying him off at their Peril.”  By “Peril,” Samuel did not mean that Ned posed any danger but rather that the enslaver would invoke laws designed to punish anyone who assisted enslaved people in liberating themselves.  Colonizers understood something that the phrase “liberating themselves” does not fully capture.  Black men and women who liberated themselves by running away and remaining hidden or beyond the reach of their enslavers often did so with the aid of family, friends, and others in extended communities.

That made some enslavers all the more vigilant.  Samuel suspected that Ned already had a plan in motion.  Rather than wait for the enslaved man to run away and then run advertisements, Samuel issued a warning to anyone who might aid him in acquiring a forged pass or leaving the colony.  In so doing, he deployed the power of the press to maintain his authority over the enslaved man, one more factor that worked to the advantage of enslavers in the era of the American Revolution.

March 21

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Mar 21 - 3:21:1770 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (March 21, 1770).

“I forewarn the masters of vessels from carrying him off.”

When “A NEGROE FELLOW, named SAM,” made his escape, James Lucena placed an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette to enlist readers throughout the colony in recovering the man he considered his property.  His notice followed a standard format, one familiar from newspapers published not only in Georgia but throughout British mainland North America.  He stated that Sam was “about 22 years old” and “speaks very good English.”  Lucena offered a physical description, noting that Sam was “about 5 feet 6 inches” and had ritual scars or “country marks on each side of his face this |||.”  He also offered a description of the clothing Sam wore when he escaped: “a dark grey cloth double breasted waistcoat and a white negroe cloth under jacket, a pair of green negroe cloth long trowsers, and a round sailor’s cap.”  He may have considered additional details unnecessary since Sam was “well known in and about Savannah.”  All of these details encouraged readers to take special note of the physical characteristics, clothing, and even speech of Black men they encountered.

Lucena was just as concerned about accomplices who aided Sam, especially “masters of vessels” who might depart the port of Savannah and transport Sam far away from Georgia and far beyond Lucena’s ability to force Sam back into bondage.  Lucena appended a nota bene to the conclusion of his advertisement, asserting that “Said negroe is suspected to be concealed on board some vessel.”  Sam could have hidden on board unknown to any of the crew, but Lucena suggested that he received assistance from sailors or even officers.  Mariners throughout the eighteenth-century Atlantic world were an exceptionally egalitarian community, often suspected of providing assistance to enslaved men in their efforts to escape.  Lucena warned that anyone who aided Sam “may depend on being prosecuted to the utmost rigour of the law.”  Like other colonies, Georgia enacted statutes to punish both enslaved men and women who escaped and anyone who “concealed,” harbored, or otherwise assisted them.  Lucena’s advertisement encouraged surveillance of Black men, but it also called for scrutiny of mariners and anyone who might be suspected of being sympathetic to Sam and others who seized their liberty.