What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“For SPAIN, PORTUGAL, LONDON … The SHIP MARY.”
Deciphering the copy in these advertisements may be difficult or even impossible, but the visual images remain as unmistakable in the twenty-first century as they would have been in the eighteenth century. A woodcut depicting a ship at sea adorned half a dozen advertisements, one following right after another, on the third page of the January 31, 1770, edition of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette. A similar but smaller fleet comprised of three vessels appeared on the first page of that issue. The pages of the newspaper replicated the scene that colonists glimpsed in Charleston’s busy harbor, vessels arriving from faraway ports and departing for new destinations throughout the Atlantic World. This visual imagery testified to the webs of exchange that crisscrossed the ocean and connected colonists in South Carolina to the rest of the continent, the Caribbean, England, mainland Europe, Africa, the Mediterranean, and beyond.
Both people and goods moved along those networks of exchange. Most of the notices featuring images of ships advertised “Freight or Passage.” Their captains stood ready to transport commodities cultivated in South America to markets on the other side of the Atlantic. Other advertisements listed vast assortments of consumer goods “imported in the last Vessels” from London, Bristol, and other English ports. Two advertisements on the same page as the larger flotilla featured images of enslaved men, women, and children, vivid reminders that not everyone who arrived in South Carolina migrated there voluntarily.
With their sails billowing and flags looking as if they were flapping in the wind, the woodcuts of the vessels at sea gave the appearance of motion. They testified to the bustling maritime traffic in one of the largest seaports in the colonies. They reminded readers of the South-Carolina and American General Gazette that even as they went about their daily lives and worried about their deteriorating relationship with Parliament that their corner of the empire was part of vast networks of commercial and cultural exchange that extended throughout the Atlantic and far beyond. The shipping news from the customs house provided a list of ports for readers to peruse, but the visual images in the advertisements, all those ships at sea, conjured much more vivid images that connected colonists to faraway places around the Atlantic and even around the globe.