January 5

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

Boston Weekly News-Letter (January 5, 1768).

“A Strong and healthy Negro MAN … addicted to be out of Nights.”

An advertisement in the January 5, 1768, edition of the Boston Weekly News-Letter offered a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN, about twenty Years old” for sale. The advertiser also proposed swapping the enslaved man “for a Negro Girl.” The notice did not offer many other details about the slave except to specify that he was “most suitable for the Country,” not because of any particular skills that he possessed but instead because he was “addicted to be out of Nights.” The anonymous advertiser implied that the enslaved man would be easier to manage when removed from an urban environment.

In that regard, this advertisement seeking to sell an enslaved man differed from most others that listed enslaved men, women, and children for sale. When describing why they intended to part with their human property, advertisers frequently declared that they were “for sale for no fault, but the want of employ” (as was the case in a notice that ran in the Pennsylvania Gazette on the same day). Other times advertisers reported that they were selling their possessions in advance of leaving the colony or provided other reasons that assured prospective buyers that the enslaved men, women, or children were not for sale because they were disobedient, disabled, or in poor health. This advertisement, on the other hand, did identify a fault, though one that could be managed in the right circumstances. In so doing, it offered a story of resistance not present in other advertisements that presented enslaved men, women, and children for sale.

Another category of advertisements concerning slaves regularly recounted stories of resistance. Advertisements for runaway slaves, as well as advertisements for captured fugitives who had been imprisoned, described their subjects in very different ways. Such advertisements purposefully adopted derogatory language, including adjectives like “cunning,” “artful,” and “bold” to report that runaways were intelligent, creative, and courageous. Advertisers offering slaves for sale avoided such disparaging characterizations or else risk scaring away buyers. The anonymous advertiser who wished to sell or exchange a “Strong and healthy Negro MAN,” however, apparently did not believe that he or she could avoid disclosing that the enslaved man was indeed sometimes difficult to control.

Read from the perspective of the enslaved man “addicted to be out of Nights,” this advertisement reveals an inquisitive young person who refused to be confined when a bustling port city offered so many possibilities for exploring and interacting with others outside of the supervision of the slaveholder. The friends and associates that he chose may have been as much a concern as his absence at nights. The unnamed “Strong and healthy Negro MAN” could have made a habit of departing in the evenings in order to be intentionally disruptive, fully realizing that such behavior inconvenienced and angered the slaveholder who perpetuated his bondage. That the advertiser did not sign the notice but instead instructed interested parties to “Enquire at Draper’s Printing Office” further suggests that the slaveholder did not want it widely known that he or she failed to exercise sufficient authority to keep the recalcitrant slave in check. Although advertisements for runaways categorically told stories of resistance, advertisements offering slaves for sale also sometimes related stories of resistance and challenges to the racial hierarchy in early America.