What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A Likely Negro LAD.”
Nathan Frazier’s advertisement for “a very good assortment of Fall and Winter GOODS” ran once again in the October 3, 1769, edition of the Essex Gazette. The shopkeeper promoted those goods by proclaiming “a single article of which has not been imported since last year.” In other words, his merchandise arrived in the colonies prior to the nonimportation agreement going into effect. He had not violated the agreement; prospective customers who supported the American cause could purchase from him with clear conscience. A new advertisement appeared immediately above it: “To be SOLD, A Likely Negro LAD, about eighteen or nineteen Years of Age, works well at the Cooper’s Trade, and understands working in the Field or Garden.” This produced a striking juxtaposition for readers, moving from an advertisement that contributed to the perpetuation of slavery to one that implicitly asserted the rights of Anglo-American colonists and defended their liberty against encroachments by Parliament. In the era of the imperial crisis that culminated with the American Revolution, colonists unevenly applied demands for liberty.
That these advertisements appeared in a newspaper published in Salem, Massachusetts, underscores that slavery was practiced throughout British mainland North America rather than limited to southern colonies. The proportion of the population comprised of enslaved men, women, and children was certainly smaller in New England than in the Chesapeake and the Lower South, but enslaved people were present, enmeshed in daily life, commerce, and print culture in the region. Fewer colonists in New England enslaved Africans and African Americans, but even those who did not themselves own slaves still participated in networks of commerce and consumption that depended on the labor of men, women, and children held in bondage. Consider another advertisement that ran in the same issue of the Essex Gazette. Richard Derby, Jr., hawked “Choice Jamaica SUGAR, RUM, ALSPICE, GINGER, and COFFEE.” Colonists in New England consumed products cultivated by enslaved laborers in the Caribbean and imported to mainland North America. They were part of transatlantic networks of production and exchange that included the slave trade as an integral component. The economies of their colonies and their personal consumption habits were deeply entangled with slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.
The progression of advertisements in the October 3 edition of the Essex Gazette – from “Choice Jamaica SUGAR” to “A Likely Negro LAD” to “Fall and Winter GOODS” imported the previous year – tells a complicated story of the quest for liberty and the perpetuation of enslavement in the era of the American Revolution. Any narrative that focuses exclusively on the patriotism exhibited by Nathan Frazier in his efforts to support the nonimportation acts tells only part of the story so readily visible in the advertisements that appeared immediately before Frazier’s notice.