April 12

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

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

Georgia Gazette (April 12, 1769).

“RUN AWAY … A NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK.”

This advertisement for a runaway “NEGROE FELLOW, named JACK,” includes a description of some injuries: “a large scar on left side of his head cut by a hanger, and a scar upon his ear by the same stroke, and several cuts upon his body.” These injuries could have been a reason why Jack was motivated to try to escape. Running away was one form of resistance enslaved men and women attempted. According to James H. Sweet, “Slave resistance began in British North America almost as soon as the first slaves arrived in the Chesapeake in the early seventeenth century.” This advertisement was part of a long history of slave resistance that had been going on ever since slaves arrived in America almost 150 years earlier. Slaves resisted in other ways if masters “increased workloads, provided meager rations, or punished too severely … by slowing work, feigning illness, breaking tools, or sabotaging production.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

Jack’s story was not unique. The advertisements in the April 12, 1769, edition of the Georgia Gazette chronicled the attempts of several other enslaved men in their endeavors to escape from bondage. Immediately above the advertisement that described Jack, another announced that a “NEGROE FELLOW, named ABRAM” who “talks good English” had made his escape nearly three weeks earlier. Almost immediately to the left, another advertisement documented the escape of a “NEGROE BOY named ROBIN, well known in Savannah” as well as “SEVEN NEGROE FELLOWS, named QUAMINA, PRINCE, HARRY, SAWNEY, POMPEY, JAMIE this country born, and another of the same name of the Angola country.”

That same issue also included advertisements about enslaved men, women, and children whose attempts to escape had failed. One reported that a “NEGRO FELLOW, and A WENCH, with A CHILD about two months old” had been “TAKEN UP” about twenty miles from Augusta near the end of January. The arrival of the child may have been the primary motivation for Sampson and Molly to flee when they did, departing shortly after Molly gave birth. Two other advertisements described captured runaways who had been “Brought to the Work-house” until slaveholders claimed them, a “NEW NEGRO FELLOW, who calls himself CATO” and Michael, a “TALL STOUT ABLE NEGROE FELLOW … of the Coromantee country.” These prisoners each considered the possible punishments for running away worth the risk of obtaining their freedom if they managed to make it to safety without being captured.

Georgia Gazette (April 12, 1769).

Some of their advertisements were among the most visible items in the Georgia Gazette. The advertisement about Abram, for instance, featured a crude woodcut of an enslaved man on the run. It was one of only four visual images in the entire issue. Two other advertisements for freight and passage had woodcuts of ships; the masthead depicted a lion and unicorn flanking a crown. The woodcut drew attention to the description of Abram, just as the headline “Brought to the Work-house” in gothic type distinguished those advertisements from others. The compositor deployed that font sparingly throughout the rest of the issue, but did so consistently for “Brought to the Work-house” advertisements, not only in the April 12 issue but week after week. These decisions about typography and graphic design significantly increased the visibility of many advertisements about enslaved men and women who attempted to escape, underscoring how disruptive and dangerous colonists considered such acts of resistance.

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.